The last successful prosecution under Britain?s blasphemy law was in 1977, when the publisher of the Gay News was fined for printing a love poem from a Roman centurion to Jesus.
In the most recent clash the nation's high court waved off an attempt by evangelicals to attack "Jerry Springer -- The Opera."
To no one's surprise, a coalition of powerful Brits has issued yet another call to kill the blasphemy law. It's a sign of the times.
"The ancient common law of blasphemous libel purports to protect beliefs rather than people or communities," said a statement backed by activists ranging from the creator of the BBC comedy "The Office" to the retired Archbishop of Canterbury. "Most religious commentators are of the view that the Almighty does not need the 'protection' of such a law. Far from protecting public order ... it actually damages social cohesion."
The conviction behind blasphemy laws is that cultures need some kind of religious order to maintain social cohesion, said Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester, a key voice in Britain's ongoing debates about faith and culture.
Defenders of Britain's law would insist, he noted, that "it provides some sort of basis to the British constitution, which is, of course, the queen and parliament, under God. So if you protect the queen and protect the parliament, then you also need to protect ... the honor of God."
But the question now is whether Britain can find a common set of values or laws, said Nazir-Ali, in a dialogue with journalists from around the world.
The timing of that 2006 seminar -- organized by my Oxford Centre for Religion & Public Life colleagues -- was crucial. Blasphemy was in the news because of Danish cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad. Then there would be more tension when Sudanese officials arrested a teacher for allowing her young class to name its teddy bear "Muhammad."
Nazir-Ali recently made headlines of his own when he claimed that radical forms of Islam have turned parts of England into "no-go zones" in which it is dangerous for non-Muslims to live, work and minister. The nation, he lamented, is breaking into "self-contained," segregated communities in which people live "parallel lives." The bishop and his family are living under police protection after receiving death threats.
"Converts to Christian faith also find it difficult or impossible to live in certain areas," noted Nazir-Ali, who was raised in Pakistan in a family with Christian and Muslim roots. "It is critically important to all that the freedom to discuss freely and perhaps to have our views changed, whether in politics, religion or science, be encouraged and not diminished."
Soon after this controversy, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams threw more fuel on the multicultural fire by saying that it "seems inevitable" that elements of Muslim Sharia law will be included in the British legal system.
In a complicated lecture, Williams said it might be possible to develop a "scheme in which individuals retain the liberty to choose the jurisdiction under which they will seek to resolve certain carefully specified matters." Sharia courts might be involved in some "aspects of marital law, the regulation of financial transactions and authorized structures of mediation and conflict resolution."
News reports about the archbishop's views created a firestorm. Critics stopped just short of accusing Williams of committing a secular brand of blasphemy, if that is possible in modern Britain.
As the headlines raged on, Nazir-Ali stressed that all of these conflicts point to one reality.
Sooner or later, he said, British leaders will have to decide whether to affirm or deny centuries of English law that is "rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition." The various schools of Islamic law that exist today, he stressed, bring with them their own traditions and assumptions and compromise will be next to impossible.
"The Sharia is not a generalized collection of dispositions. It is articulated in highly concrete codes," he wrote, at his diocesan website. "It would have to be one or the other, or all, of these which would have to be recognized. All of these schools would be in tension with the English legal tradition on questions like monogamy, provisions of divorce, the rights of women, custody of children, laws of inheritance and of evidence.
"This is not to mention the relation of freedom of belief and expression to provisions for blasphemy and apostasy."