a Bible or holy book

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.”

  • Chuck Witt

    Chuck is a retired archi­tect, a for­mer news­pa­per colum­nist, and a life­long res­i­dent of Winchester.