Humanists are cheering the passage of a bill repealing Canada's prohibition on "blasphemous libel" in the Senate today. Canada's 19th century blasphemy law will be no more once the bill receives Royal Assent.
Ian Bushfield, Executive Director, BC Humanist Association
The passage of this Bill is a clear recognition by Parliament that archaic restrictions on freedom of expression have no place in Canada. Further, it serves as a sign that Canada condemns those theocracies around the world that are willing to punish someone for disagreeing with religious orthodoxy.
Update (December 13, 2018)
Bill C-51 received Royal Assent today, meaning Canada has officially repealed it's blasphemy law.
The path to repeal
Section 296 of Canada's Criminal Code said:
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.
Question of fact
(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.
As Jeremy Patrick wrote in his PhD dissertation, the provision has been part of the Code since 1892 and the last conviction was in 1927. Nevertheless, private prosecutions occurred throughout the 1920s and and 30s, with some happening into the 1970s. The most recent effort to invoke the law was in 1979 when an Anglican clergyman tried unsuccessfully to use it to censor a screening of Monty Python's The Life of Brian.
Humanist and freethinking groups across Canada came together in June 2016 to launch a Parliamentary e-petition calling for the repeal of section 296 of the Criminal Code, which is Canada's blasphemy law. Over 7400 Canadians signed that petition. As part of her response to the petition, Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould confirmed the blasphemy law was being considered as part of a broader effort of justice reform.
Almost a year after the launch of the petition, the Government included the repeal of section 296 in its bill to modernize the criminal code. Bill C-51 repeals a number of archaic and unconstitutional provisions of the Code and make a couple other amendments.
C-51 initially also proposed repealing section 176 of the Criminal Code. This section prohibits disrupting a religious service. Humanists argued at every stage that repealing this section would help protect the right of Canadians to dissent from religious orthodoxy. However, the Government ultimately chose to amend the section following a large and coordinated effort by religious groups to lobby the House of Commons committee that studied the bill.
The bill reached the Senate in December 2017 and passed third reading with amendments on October 30, 2018. The House of Commons considered those amendments on December 6 and 10, 2018 and ultimately rejected them. In a vote today the Senate agreed it "does not insist on its Amendments" clearing the way for its passage.
It now awaits Royal Assent by Governor General Julie Payette, at which point Canada's blasphemy law will be officially repealed.