Cursing the name of the almighty Creator, considered a national pastime by many secular citizens worldwide, could land you in jail in several predominantly Christian European countries—including Spain. In September of 2018, Spanish film actor Willy Toledo was detained for questioning by a judge in connection to the trial of three feminist protesters accused of insulting the Catholic Church. Toledo twice ignored summons for questioning, arguing that he has not “committed any offense and so there is no need to appear before a judge.”
In July of 2017, three women were arrested for marching through Sevilla with a giant vagina statue (named “Coño Insumiso” or “Insubordinate P***y”), imitating a religious procession. Toledo showed his support for the protestors in a Facebook post, writing: “I s**t on God, and I have enough s**t left over to s**t on the dogma of the sanctity and virginity of the Virgin Mary. This country is unbearably shameful. I’m disgusted.” The Spanish Association of Christian Lawyers quickly denounced him for “covering God and the Virgin Mary with ridicule.”
Article 525 of the Spanish Penal Code criminalizes “vilification” of religious “feelings,” “dogmas,” “beliefs,” or “rituals.” While not technically a blasphemy law, the offense of speaking disparaging words about God and the inclusion of “dogmas” and “beliefs” makes it similar in effect, depending on the interpretation and discretion of the judge. These religious insult laws are punished with jail time in Spain. For example, in 2012, famous Spanish underground artist Javier Krahe was jailed for his 1978 54-second film on “how to cook Jesus Christ.” He was accused of “offending religious feelings,” with a bail set at €192,000, and was discharged within the same year.
All wealth-rich countries have some forms of prohibited speech out of necessity, like fighting words and offensive speech in the United States or Volksverhetzung (inciting hatred and Holocaust denial) in Germany. Restrictions on speech can serve to fight against populist hate movements like Nazism at best and stifle minority dissent at worst. The only way to draft constructive speech-restricting legislation is to consider the hierarchy of cultural oppression and aim up, as outlined in Amnesty International’s contribution to the Racist Hate Speech and Freedom of Opinion and Expression thematic discussion organized by the United Nations Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination. However, restricting the speech rights of religious minorities, including those of the non-religious, does not do this.
The international reaction to Toledo’s detention has been swift. Humanists UK, which helped found the End Blasphemy Laws campaign in 2015, released a statement on The Guardian condemning the arrest. Humanists UK regularly uses its platform on the UN Human Rights Council to criticize States that maintain their blasphemy laws. They claim States like “Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, who use blasphemy laws as justification for the execution of non-religious people, often cite the hypocrisy of European blasphemy laws.”
Spain’s actions regarding religious speech violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Specifically, Article 18, which guarantees the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, as well as Section 2 of Article 19, which protects the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, are violated. In July 2011, the UN Human Rights Committee commented on the relationship between blasphemy laws and the ICCPR, stating that “prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant,” except in specific circumstances outlined therein. However, the international campaign to repeal blasphemy laws has so far been led primarily by civil advocacy and non-governmental organizations. These campaigns have had to argue for increased free speech protections without infringing on the validity of laws that prohibit incitement of hate.
While decisive action by international bodies is unlikely at this point due to the United Nation’s preference for non-legal efforts regarding speech laws and Spain’s relatively powerful position in the UN, non-governmental organizations have been effective in advocating for legal reform in the past. For example, France, Malta, England, Wales, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland have all removed blasphemy laws in response to successful campaigns from civil advocates. More discourse on the anachronism and irrationality of laws that punish criticism of the church, especially as the power structures of the Catholic Church are being rightfully reevaluated, will be necessary in civil reform efforts going forward.