The Tasmanian government is considering reforms to remove blasphemy offences from the state’s law books.
In a letter to the Rationalist Society of Australia, Attorney-General Elise Archer has pledged to consider “what, if any, legislative reform may be necessary in relation to the existing blasphemy offence provisions” in the state.
Earlier this year, RSA president Meredith Doig asked Ms Archer to abolish blasphemy offences from Section 119 of the state’s Criminal Code Act 1924, which makes blasphemy a crime for any person who “by words spoken or intended to be read, wilfully publishes a blasphemous libel”. Dr Doig argued blasphemy laws had no place in modern Tasmania.
In 2018, the Ruddock report on religious freedom recommended all jurisdictions yet to abolish statutory or common law offences of blasphemy should do so. The report said blasphemy laws were “antiquated”, “out of step with a modern, tolerant, multicultural society”, and incompatible with the rights to freedom of speech and expression.
The RSA wrote also to the attorneys-general of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory, similarly urging them to abolish blasphemy laws. Queensland and Western Australia have already removed such offences.
While acknowledging that the last successful prosecution for blasphemy in Australia was in 1871, Ms Archer said she was aware various law reform reports had recommended blasphemy offences be abolished.
“I take the view that it is important Tasmania’s legislation is regularly reviewed to ensure that statutory provisions are operating effectively, remain contemporary and reflect current policy and community standards,” she said.
“Therefore, I will consider what, if any, legislative reform may be necessary in relation to the existing blasphemy offence provisions in Tasmania.”
In contrast to Tasmania’s active consideration of law reform, the Victorian government said it “did not have plans to repeal the common law offence of blasphemy and blasphemous libel in Victoria”, and the governments of South Australia and NSW were also non-committal. The ACT failed to respond to the RSA’s letter.
In an academic paper published in 2022, constitutional law expert Luke Beck said the crime of blasphemy remained “one of the more bizarre legacies of the past”, regulated by statute in New South Wales, Tasmania and the ACT, and under common law in Victoria and South Australia.
“Blasphemy offences of the kind that exist in Australia are wholly inconsistent with international human rights law,” Dr Beck wrote.
Image: Elise Archer MP (Facebook)