U.S. House Supports International Religious Freedom Resolution

By BJC Associate General Counsel Jennifer Hawks

Today, the U.S. House of Representatives passed House Resolution 512 (H.Res. 512), which calls for the repeal of blasphemy and apostasy laws globally. BJC worked with the American Humanist Association and more than six dozen religious and nontheistic organizations from across the political spectrum to educate the representatives on the harms of blasphemy and apostasy laws and urge passage of the common sense resolution. Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Maryland, provided extraordinary leadership in the House to keep this resolution moving from introduction to final passage.

More than one-third of the world’s countries have laws on the books that punish speech or actions denigrating religion (blasphemy) or one’s decision to change religions (apostasy). These blasphemy and apostasy laws strike at the most fundamental human right: the ability for each individual to decide whether to be religious and, if so, what that religion will be.

Article 18 of the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights reminds us of the importance of this freedom, clearly stating that everyone has religious freedom, including the ability to change religion or belief. Because of our Constitution’s First Amendment, blasphemy and apostasy laws are unenforceable in the United States, but much work is still needed around the world. By passing the bipartisan H.Res. 512, the U.S. House of Representatives has unequivocally reaffirmed America’s commitment to religious freedom for all people.

Americans can still be directly impacted by these laws, even though they aren’t enforceable in our country.

In July 2020, American citizen Tahir Naseem was assassinated in a situation created by these laws. According to the U.S. State Department, Naseem was lured from his home in Illinois to Pakistan by people who then entrapped him with Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. While Naseem was in a Pakistani courtroom for a bail hearing related to his 2018 charges of blasphemy, he was gunned down by a teenaged vigilante. That vigilante now is being celebrated as a local hero.

In 2015, Americans Dr. Avijit Roy and his wife were attacked by a machete-wielding mob in Bangladesh — a group angered by their writings supporting and promoting secular humanism. His wife survived the attack and submitted testimony to the U.S House of Representatives earlier this year describing the death of her husband and the impact of blasphemy laws on nontheists.

While most Americans may give little thought to blasphemy and apostasy laws, our global neighbors and Americans who travel or work abroad are not so fortunate. Fear of government reprisals or vigilante violence exists in many countries for expressing (or being accused of expressing) a religious opinion that differs from the ruling class.

No government should have the ability to dictate the nature of religious belief. Blasphemy and apostasy laws stifle religious expression, silence religious minorities and political opponents, and generally foster religious intolerance, discrimination and violence within society. Members of the dominant religious group are often victimized by these laws as well.

Pakistan, one of the countries where blasphemy is a capital offense, has charged more Muslims with blasphemy than any other religious group. The Centre for Social Justice, a research and advocacy group based in Lahore, Pakistan, found that at least 62 men and women had been killed for a suspicion of blasphemy and at least 1,472 people had been formally charged with blasphemy in Pakistan between 1987 and 2015. The Centre estimated that, of those formally charged, 730 are Muslim, 501 are Ahmadi (who consider themselves Muslim but are not legally permitted to describe themselves as such), 205 are Christian, and 26 are Hindu. The Centre could not determine the religion of the other 10 people who were charged because they were killed before legal proceedings commenced.

Fortunately, countries around the world are realizing how problematic blasphemy and apostasy laws are. In July 2020, Sudan repealed its apostasy law, joining nine other countries who have repealed their blasphemy laws since 2015.

The embers of an international movement to more fully protect global religious freedom are glowing. If the U.S. Senate joins the House by passing its companion resolution (S.Res. 458), then Congress will be speaking in one voice to #endblasphemylaws and perhaps fan the flames of this international movement. Because a threat to religious freedom anywhere is a threat to religious freedom everywhere, BJC remains committed to working with our advocacy partners in the religious and secular community to defend faith freedom for all.

UPDATE: The U.S. Senate joined the U.S. House in supporting international religious freedom by passing its companion resolution, S.Res. 458, on Saturday, December 19, 2020. The Senate effort calling to #endblasphemylaws was spearheaded by Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, and Sen. Chris Coons, D-Delaware. Congress has spoken: Blasphemy and apostasy laws harm religious freedom. Blasphemy laws still exist in more than 80 countries, so the work continues as we stand with our global neighbors seeking faith freedom for all.

Jennifer Hawks is Associate General Counsel of BJC.