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Blasphemy law on way out in time for Easter

Mar 29th, 2018 | By | Category: Front Page Layout, Latest News, News

The last prosecution for blasphemous libel under the Crimes Act 1961 was brought 96 years ago.

People will soon be able to say anything they want about God thanks to a blasphemy offence being removed from the Crimes Act.

A secular group is welcoming the scrapping of the “redundant” blasphemy law, which it says makes New Zealand hypocritical on the world stage.

“It’s about time it got removed,” Humanist Society of New Zealand president Sara Passmore says.

Her group has long campaigned for the repeal of section 123 of the Crimes Act 1961, which makes publication of blasphemous libel a criminal offence punishable by up to one year in prison.

“When one group of ideas is protected, we don’t think that really matches up with human rights. We think that blasphemy laws protect one group and one group only.”

The offending poem, which was published in The Maoriland Worker in 1922, the last time the law was used..

“Having the law on our statute kind of encourages other countries to retain their laws as well where it is being used, where people are being persecuted.

“The international community have very big concerns about New Zealand still having this legislation on our books.”

The government’s Crimes Amendment Bill, introduced on March 19, deletes the offence from New Zealand law.

Justice Minister Andrew Little, who is in charge of the bill, told Parliament the law must stay up to date.

“Archaic laws that serve no useful purpose, or—worse—frustrate legitimate prosecution should be removed from the laws of New Zealand.

“It stands with a very distinct tension with our New Zealand Bill of Rights Act protection of freedom of expression.”

New Zealand inherited it from English common law in 1840, and maintained it in successive criminal codes with only minor language updates.

The last, and so far only prosecution brought under the clause was in 1922. The newspaper in question had published a Siegfried Sassoon war poem and was found not guilty.

The Attorney-General must sign off on prosecutions under the clause to be removed, but in cases in recent decades the Crown has declined to prosecute.

Removal of clause has been supported by former Prime Minister Bill English, a practising Catholic, and the Anglican Church.

The bill passed its first reading in Parliament this week, and was sent through to the Justice Committee for public feedback.

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