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Archbishop says law 'must protect religions'

By Jonathan Petre, Religion Correspondent (Telegraph)

New legislation may be needed to protect religious believers from "thoughtless and cruel" attacks if Britain's ancient blasphemy laws are scrapped, the Archbishop of Canterbury said yesterday.

Dr Rowan Williams conceded that the blasphemy offences were flawed and no longer served any purpose, but he questioned whether recently introduced laws banning incitement to religious hatred were an adequate substitute.

The Archbishop said that public debate had become coarsened by powerful people who arrogantly assumed the rightness of their own position and ignored the hurt they caused others, including Muslims and Jews.

"The law cannot and should not prohibit argument, which involves criticism, and even angry criticism at times," said Dr Williams.

"But it can in some settings send a signal about what is generally proper in a viable society by stigmatising and punishing extreme behaviours that have the effect of silencing argument."

He added that the law should "keep before our eyes the general risk of debasing public controversy by thoughtlessness and (even if unintentionally) cruel styles of speaking and action."

The Archbishop was speaking after the Government announced plans to axe the much criticised blasphemy laws after a consultation with the Church of England.

In the James Callaghan Memorial lecture, Dr Williams challenged the argument that free speech must always prevail, saying that society had to protect the sensibilities of people who were not in a position to defend themselves.

"It is one thing to deny a sacred point of reference for one's own moral or social policies; it is another to refuse to entertain - or imagine - what it might be for someone else to experience the world differently," he said.

"And behind this is the nagging problem of what happens to a culture in which, systematically, nothing is sacred."

He said that since the blasphemy laws no longer provided religious believers with sufficient protection, there was "no real case for its retention".

But he added: "How adequately the new laws will meet the case remains to be seen; I should only want to suggest that the relative power and political access of a group or person laying charges under this legislation might well be a factor in determining what is rightly actionable."

His speech was, however, dismissed by the National Secular Society as "self-serving and dangerous".

Terry Sanderson, the president of the Society, said it was "a blatant pitch" for new legislation to replace the blasphemy laws that would be "even worse than the ones we are about to ditch".

Church leaders accept that the blasphemy laws were severely undermined when a High Court ruling last month rejected an attempt by an evangelical Christian group to prosecute the director general of the BBC over the musical Jerry Springer - The Opera.