Surprise as public figures told New Zealand still has anti-blasphemy laws
New Zealand still has an anti-blasphemy law, though neither the prime minister nor the Anglican archbishop was aware of the fact.
The law – which appears not to have been used since 1922 – came to light after reports British entertainer Stephen Fry faced police investigation in the Republic of Ireland for comments he made about "a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God".
New Zealand has laws covering crimes against religion, morality, and public welfare. And blasphemous libel – though vaguely defined – remains an offence punishable by up to 12 months' jail.
Now a range of people, including Prime Minister Bill English and Anglican Archbishop and Primate Philip Richardson, say it's time to get rid of the arbitrary and archaic law.
English said on Monday that he did not previously know the blasphemy laws existed, but "we could get rid of them".
He added: "Laws that overreach on addressing robust speech are not a good idea."
Richardson said he saw no point to the law. "My view is, God's bigger than needing to be defended by the Crimes Act."
It was a "nuanced" issue, he said, and it was important to have laws against inciting violence, but the right not be offended was not sacred.
"Our freedom is a reflection of love."
ACT leader David Seymour said it was terrible to have "arbitrary laws" that were not usually enforced. "That creates a situation where some people in authority can choose to enforce the law at their discretion."
Laws such as the blasphemous libel one meant "most people are breaking some law at some time, and whether you get done for it depends on whether you're a popular or unpopular figure".
Seymour said an MP could introduce a private member's bill to repeal the law.
"I have deep respect for religion and the various churches in New Zealand, but I have no respect for people who want to mix religion and politics."
The Government already had "omnibus" bills aimed at cutting red tape and getting rid of redundant laws.
But a "gentleman's agreement" existed where only uncontroversial laws were up for repeal, he said.
Lawyer and former Labour prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer said "there's probably a good case for changing or abolishing" the law.
He said the Bill of Rights Act enshrined rights to freedom of expression so there would be huge difficulty "re-enacting" the blasphemy law.
A "let sleeping dogs lie" attitude was one reason the law hadn't been repealed. But "it's not a desirable thing to have a law on the books that isn't used".
Prosecution could proceed only with the Attorney-General's approval, and it seemed nobody had been prosecuted for blasphemy since 1922. That prosecution, against the editor of Maoriland Worker, failed.
Humanist Society vice-president Mark Honeychurch said the blasphemy law was an embarrassment for New Zealand's global reputation, and meant it had no credibility when criticising theocracies such as Saudi Arabia, which severely punished people for blaspheming.
University of Canterbury law professor Ursula Cheer said "in this day and age" there was no reason for keeping the laws.
"They've been on the books for a long time but there've been few if any prosecutions, and certainly none if any recently."
She said nobody seemed to know which religions the "blasphemous libel" law covered.
Don Brash, former National party leader and one of a diverse group who signed an open letter last month calling for free speech to be protected at universities, was also surprised to hear of the law.
He said he'd spent most of his life identifying as a Christian, and saw no point to the law.
Greens justice spokesman David Clendon said the law was an "odd" one, and he too was surprised it existed.