The blasphemy laws, which have existed in English common law for centuries, have been swept away.
The common law offence of blasphemy was abolished in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act, which received the Royal Assent on Thursday last week.
But the Act only became law after the Government gave way on a couple of issues, because it wanted to get the legislation through its Parliamentary stages and on to the statute book in time to avert a threatened strike by prison officers.
In one concession, the Government accepted a fresh defeat inflicted in the House of Lords on Wednesday May 7, when peers insisted on a “free speech” defence to cases in which someone was charged with the new criminal offence of incitement to homophobic hatred, introduced in the Act.
The Government also accepted an earlier reverse at the hands of the Lords, who retained in the legislation an amendment which stopped magistrates’ courts being deprived of the right to impose suspended sentences for minor offences.
The abolition of the blasphemy laws marks the end of centuries during which it has been a criminal offence – with an unlimited penalty – to attack the tenets and beliefs of the Church of England.
The law has in recent years come under increasing criticism because of the uncertainty which surrounded it.
The last prosecution under the blasphemy laws was the case of Whitehouse v Lemon, which concerned the publication in Gay News of a poem entitled The love which dare not speak its name, about a Roman Centurion’s feelings for the crucified Christ.
The case reached the House of Lords in 1979, when the Law Lords rejected the publisher’s appeal against conviction, holding that specific intent was not required to commit the offence.
The last attempt to bring a prosecution for blasphemy was mounted last year by evangelical group Christian Voice, which sought to bring a private prosecution against BBC director general Mark Thompson and producer Jonathan Thoday over the broadcast of the show Jerry Springer the Musical.
Westminster Magistrates refused to issue a summons for a private prosecution, and the High Court rejected a request for judicial review of that ruling in December 2007.
The House of Lords rejected a petition for an appeal in March.
On the issue of homophobic hatred, the House of Lords succeed in inserting into the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act a free speech defence.
It states that “the discussion or criticism of sexual conduct or practices or the urging of persons to refrain from or modify such conduct or practices shall not be taken of itself to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred”.
The Act also inserts new offences into the Data Protection Act, making it unlawful for a data controller intentionally or recklessly to disclose information in personal data, or repeatedly and negligently allow such information to be disclosed, or intentionally or recklessly to fail to comply with his duties under the data protection principles.
It also creates a new defence for journalists to an offence under the Data Protection Act of unlawfully obtaining personal data.
An individual has a defence if he can show that he acted for the special purposes, with a view to the publication of journalistic, literary or artistic material, and in the reasonable belief that it was in the public interest to obtain or disclose the information.