It’s doubtful many people realize that six states still have blasphemy laws on their books.
Blasphemy, according to the Mirriam-Webster Dictionary, is defined: as the act of expressing lack of reverence for God.
Doubtful for two reasons. First, probably not a fraction of one percent of individuals ever even thinks about the concept of blasphemy, and secondly, because these antiquated laws have no bearing on contemporary society in which freedom of speech is so cherished and, one might add, guaranteed in our Bill of Rights.
Blasphemy laws are far more common around the world than one would imagine. A Pew Research Center analysis found in 2019 nearly 40% of countries and territories studied around the world still enforced blasphemy laws. In some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, conviction of blasphemy can carry a penalty of death.
One of the reasons why it seems so unusual for six U.S. states to still have blasphemy laws in effect is because, in 1952 – seventy years ago – the U.S. Supreme Court, in Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson found that “the state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them… it is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine…”
Perhaps the key word in this finding is “imagined” because many prosecutions (or persecutions) for blasphemy have been based on the most innocuous, even imagined, slights to religion or a religious view.
The six states that have laws referencing blasphemy are Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wyoming.
One might reasonably have expected that Massachusetts, with its experiences with the notorious 17th century witch trials, would have been among the first to abolish such laws. In fact, Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 272, Section 36 is especially egregious: Whoever willfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, his creation, government or the final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching or exposing to contempt and ridicule, the holy word of God contained in the holy scriptures shall be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than one year or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars, and may also be bound to good behavior.
It’s pretty obvious that the writer of this law had found a new word that especially appealed to him, contumeliously. It’s also pretty obvious that it, like so many laws, leaves much to subjective conjecture, i.e. willfully, contumeliously, and good behavior.
But the final point in illuminating these ridiculous laws is that the speech testing of ideas is the most powerful antiseptic for every sort of ideal proposed by or foisted upon mankind — and without that antiseptic the worst of these ideals can fester and overcome even the most ardent defense. Recall Nazism, when speech was curtailed as the movement grew and overtook an entire nation. Even now, with the vast curtailment of the free press in Russia, the citizens of that country have virtually no knowledge of the true extent of the atrocities being waged on Ukraine.
Perhaps Clarence Darrow expressed it most eloquently during the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925, and it applies equally to today’s blasphemy laws: “If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, …the next session you may ban books and newspapers…. After a while, your honor, it is the setting man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind were burned at the stake.”