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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Blasphemy law returns with a vengeance

The National Secular Society said this week that blasphemy law had been reintroduced by the back door after a Manchester man was convicted at Liverpool Crown Court on Wednesday of causing “religiously aggravated intentional harassment, alarm or distress”.

One of the images left by Mr. Taylor

One of the images left by Mr. Taylor

Harry Taylor left anti-religious cartoons and other material he had cut from newspapers and magazines in the prayer room of John Lennon airport in Liverpool. He did this as an act of provocation because he says he regards himself as a militant atheist. He is now on bail awaiting sentencing – religiously aggravated offences carry a potential seven-year prison term.

Among the literature left by Mr Taylor was a spoof ad for No More Nails, a wood glue used by DIYers. It showed a smiling Jesus, glued rather than nailed on the Cross (you can see a filmed version of the ad on Youtube which, incredibly, seems to have passed under the “I’m-offended” brigade’s radar, but not for much longer, I fear).

Another image found was of Islamic suicide bombers at the gates of paradise being told, ‘Stop, stop, we’ve run out of Virgins’. Another was of two Muslims holding a placard demanding equality alongside the caption: “Not for women or gays, obviously.

Taylor, from Salford, claimed that he was trying to ‘convert’ believers to atheism and that he had left the materials at the airport as a tribute to John Lennon, whose song Imagine envisages a world with ‘no religion’. He insisted that people would only be offended if their faith was “weak” and that the images were meant to be seen as satire.

Taylor denied the three counts of religiously aggravated harassment, alarm of distress and has said that he is not hostile to people but that he is hostile to religion.

Another of the images left by Mr. Taylor

Another of the images left by Mr. Taylor

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said: “This is a disgraceful verdict, but an inevitable one under this pernicious law. It seems incredible in the 21st century that you might be sent to prison because someone is ‘offended’ by your views on their religion. The blasphemy laws were abolished three years ago, but live on under the guise of these religiously aggravated public order offences whose tentacles are much more far-reaching.”

He added that “Harry Taylor had shown the NSS the pictures that had caused the chaplain at the airport to say in court that she had been ‘insulted, deeply offended and alarmed’ when she found the bits of paper in the prayer room. The cuttings were all from publications that could be bought from any mainstream newsagent: cartoons from Private Eye and scraps cut from various newspapers that were mildly anti-religious in nature. There was nothing obscene or threatening about them. I can see how a religious person could be offended, but not ‘alarmed’. How any person whose job includes dealing with awkward and challenging situations, such as bereavements and funerals, could be alarmed by this is beyond me. We can only speculate why she said so, but her inclusion of that word will presumably have sealed Harry Taylor’s fate. Why didn’t she just throw the material in the bin if she thought it inappropriate for the prayer room?

“This verdict will open the floodgates for religious zealots to secure prosecutions over the most trivial matters. Expressing atheist views should be no more against the law than expressing Christian or Islamic views.

“Freedom of expression should be cherished, not penalised. Offending someone should not justify a prison sentence, far less one of seven years. The maximum sentence for religiously aggravated offences is draconian.”

Mr Sanderson commented: “Mr Taylor struck me as slightly eccentric and he acted in a provocative way, challenging the necessity for the prayer room. Importantly though, he didn’t cause any damage and he didn’t harm anything or anyone, nor was he threatening or abusive. Yet he might still end up behind bars because some Christian has decided she is offended. In a multicultural society, none of us should have the legal right not to be offended. This law needs to be re-examined urgently.”

Published Fri, 05 Mar 2010