New Zealand’s blasphemy law on the chopping block

Reader Gordon called my attention to an article on the Radio New Zealand site (click screenshot to see it) that implies that New Zealand’s blasphemy law may stay in place (the ACT is a political party, and I’ll let Kiwi readers characterize it). But read on, as the headline is misleading.

The law against blasphemy is in section 123 of the Crimes Act of 1961, and says this:

Note that the law expressly applies to “any religious subject”, making it untenable, and also fails to define “blaphemous libel”. Both of these provisions make the law, like that in Ireland, unenforcible. Indeed, this law and its antecedents, which prohibited only blasphemy against the Anglican Church, have been used only once, and nobody was convicted. As Wikipedia notes:

To date the only prosecution for blasphemous libel in New Zealand has been the case of John Glover, publisher of the newspaper The Maoriland Worker in 1922.The Crown laid a charge of blasphemous libel over the 12 October 1921 issue of The Maoriland Worker which included two poems by British poet Siegfried Sassoon. The alleged blasphemy was the closing lines of Sassoon’s poem ‘Stand-to: Good Friday Morning’:

O Jesus, send me a wound to-day,
And I’ll believe in Your bread and wine,
And get my bloody old sins washed white!

The case was tried in the Supreme Court in 1922. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty with a rider: “That similar publications of such literature be discouraged”.

In 1998, the Crown decided not to prosecute Te Papa museum for displaying Tania Kovats’ Virgin in a Condom.  In 2006, the Crown decided not to pursue blasphemy charges against CanWest, a broadcaster, for airing an episode of South Park featuring a menstruating Virgin Mary statue. Usually, such cases must be referred to the New Zealand Attorney-General before they can proceed. However, the Attorney-General usually refuses to pursue blasphemy prosecutions on the basis of free speech objections, as the right to free speech is protected within New Zealand’s Bill of Rights Act 1990.

What harm, then, in a toothless blasphemy law? First, it’s an offense to a democratic and rational society that such laws remain on the books, and an indictment of the cowardice of the politicians who, knowing full well that the law is useless, still refuse to repeal it.  As Grania pointed out today , there have been promises of a national Irish referendum on its blasphemy law, but those promises haven’t been kept. As Grania also mentioned, blasphemy laws like these are “being used to justify and push for more blasphemy laws by groups such as the OIC [the Organization for Islamic Cooperation] at the United Nations.”

At any rate, though the headline looks bad, it’s really not, as the Radio NZ article notes, attempts to repeal the law were inspired by the foolish investigation of Stephen Fry by the Irish Police, the bill is proceeding through the New Zealand legislature, and that even representatives of the Anglican Church in New Zealand have called for deep-sixing the blasphemy law. As reader Gordon told me:

Looks like the (long unused) NZ blasphemy law will finally be repealed.  Don’t be fooled by the headline – the critical bit is “Instead, Labour MP Chris Hipkins tabled an amendment to the Statutes Repeal Bill to delete the crime of blasphemy, so no time would be wasted with a separate bill.”

The Statutes Repeal Bill is currently on its way through Parliament (it’s a non-contentious act where all parties agree to repeal obsolete legislation) and there is now a tabled amendment to that Bill which will repeal the relevant section of the Crimes Act (s 123).


  1. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 10, 2017 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    “New Zealand’s blasphemy law on the chopping block” — so your visit there wasn’t in vain? Shades of St. Paddy chasing the snakes out of Ireland.

    • Posted May 10, 2017 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

      We could suggest to Prof. Coyne to visit some other countries.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted May 11, 2017 at 11:47 am | Permalink

        Cue PCC(E) finding it increasingly difficult to get visas.

  2. Heather Hastie
    Posted May 10, 2017 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    As Jerry says, there was already a Bill on the order paper going quietly through the House, attracting no attention, to get rid of obsolete legislation. It’s due on the floor next week. It includes the blasphemy law. When the Stephen Fry case came up, the one and only ACT MP (most right-wing party in parliament) sought attention by putting the blasphemy law into a separate bill and bringing it up a week early. That is what has been stopped as a waste of time. The main bill that includes the blasphemy law is still going ahead next week.

    People have been working behind the scenes for years to get our blasphemy law overturned. I’ve been writing about it since I started my website 2.5 years ago. ACT is late to the party and looking for attention now that the repeal is non-controversial.

    • Gordon
      Posted May 10, 2017 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

      Possibly there might be an election in say 5 months and ACT is polling somewhere below the margin of error

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted May 10, 2017 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

        And they’re worried whether they are going to get another deal in Epsom, especially if no one is interested in them. It won’t be worth it for National if ACT is polling low and they’ll be more worried about Ohariu/Peter Dunne.

  3. DrBrydon
    Posted May 10, 2017 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    It is ridiculous that the second section of the law says blasphemy is a question of fact, while the third makes it clear it is a question of interpretation. Who is to decide what is “good faith” or “decent language”? Prosecutions under laws like this should be thrown out by courts any time they happen.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted May 10, 2017 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

      There has never been a successful prosecution, and only one attempt – in 1922.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted May 11, 2017 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      Thankfully, IANAlawyer, but even I could detect the logical impossibilities in that law. Whoever drafted it should have been ashamed of their work.
      I wonder, would the quality of legislation be improved if the “Civil” “Service” lawyers actually had their names attached to each piece of legislation they write?

  4. NormG
    Posted May 10, 2017 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Here is my country’s version of the blasphemy law:
    Canada’s Criminal Code Section 296

    296. (1) Every one who publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years

    (2) It is a question of fact whether or not any matter that is published is a blasphemous libel.
    (3) No person shall be convicted of an offence under this section for expressing in good faith and in decent language, or attempting to establish by argument used in good faith and conveyed in decent language, an opinion on a religious subject.
    R.S., c. C-34, s. 260.

    Looks very similar to the kiwi one, plagiarism or writers attended the same law school? Perhaps just common law amongst commonwealth countries. (pun intended)

    On the books since 1892. At least they got rid of “The office of religious freedom” on my birthday last year, thanks JT.

    • Gordon
      Posted May 10, 2017 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

      Mainly due I suspect to many of the then Dominions basing their criminal law on a draft code prepared in England by one Sir James Fitzjames Stephen.

      • NormG
        Posted May 11, 2017 at 6:50 am | Permalink

        Well I learned something about my country today. Wiki says “The Parliament of Canada used a version of Stephen’s Draft Bill revised and augmented by George Burbidge, at the time Judge of the Exchequer Court of Canada, to codify its criminal law in 1892 as the Criminal Code, 1892.”

        Thank you Gordon.

  5. Posted May 10, 2017 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Off topic, but this post reminds me that it at times get very confusing that the verb “tabled” means almost the exact opposite in American English of what it means in Commonwealthian English.

  6. Posted May 10, 2017 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Libel, but not slander, again.


  7. tombesson
    Posted May 10, 2017 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    I especially liked it when I saw a New Zealand politician on the news say in response to the news about considering the repeal of the blasphemy law, “It’s about god damn time!”

  8. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 12:46 am | Permalink

    ACT (‘Association of Consumers and Taxpayers’) is a small minority party well to the right, that is fading into obscurity (its one MP owes his seat to a ‘deal’ with the National Party not to stand a candidate against him in Epsom – this is the nearest thing to gerrymandering possible under our MMP proportional representation.

    ‘ACT’s attempt to’ do anything is destined to fail unless one of the major parties supports it. This was just ACT trying desperately for attention and to appear relevant.


  9. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 1:07 am | Permalink

    And on the subject of misleading out-of-context headlines –
    “Department of Conservation permits NZ Transit Agency and Kiwirail to kill protected seals”

    Well, not quite. The seals are basking all along the coast where the road and railway are being dug out from landslides caused by the Kaikoura earthquake. The permit just means they can ‘harass’ the seals by herding them away from construction work and that if any seals are accidentally killed by e.g. blasting or falling rocks, a criminal investigation won’t be required.

    But I confidently expect to see it quoted by apologists next time Newfoundland massacres baby seals…


  10. somer
    Posted May 11, 2017 at 5:15 am | Permalink


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