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Iceland: Blasphemy Law Repealed

(July 15, 2015) On July 2, 2015, the Icelandic Parliament voted to repeal the country’s blasphemy legislation. (821 Frumvarp, Heligi Hrafn Gunanrson, Althingi [Parliament] website (last visited July 15, 2015).)

The crime of blasphemy had been on the books since 1940; the relevant legal provision stated: “[a]nyone officially ridiculing or insulting the dogmas or worship of a lawfully existing religious community in this Country shall be subject to fines or [imprisonment for up to 3 months.] Lawsuits shall not be brought except upon the instructions of the Public Prosecutor.” (Iceland General Penal Code, Act No. 19 (Feb. 12, 1940), art. 125, World Intellectual Property Organization website.)

The bill for repeal of the blasphemy provision was brought forward by three members of Parliament belonging to the Pirate Party. The repeal comes in wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and in solidarity with its victims. The authors of the bill wrote that “[f]reedom of expression is one of the cornerstones of democracy. It is fundamental to a free society that people should be able to express themselves without fear of punishment, whether from the authorities or from other people.” (Bill to Decriminalise Blasphemy in Iceland, ICELAND MONITOR (Feb. 26, 2015).)

Only one member of parliament voted against the legislation; three members abstained. (Pirates Get Blasphemy Decriminalized, ICELAND MONITOR (July 2, 2015).)

Opponents of the draft law, primarily religious groups, argued that the new legislation would legalize hate speech and that the previous legislation did not criminalize criticism of religion. (Bill to Decriminalize Blasphemy in Iceland, supra.) The Bishop of the Church of Iceland, however, publicly supported the legislation. (Id.)