THE National Secular Society’s annual prize for Secularist of the Year has been awarded jointly to Dr Evan Harris MP and Lord Avebury for their success in getting blasphemy laws abolished.
The prestigious prize was handed over by Professor Richard Dawkins at a glittering awards ceremony at the Imperial Hotel in central London at the weekend.
Terry Sanderson, President of the NSS, said:
The abolition of the blasphemy law in 2008 was a major coup for the NSS and a great victory for everyone who values free speech. The ancient laws had not been used successfully since the 1970s, but there were efforts by Christian evangelicals to revive them, and a case was being considered even as the law was abolished.
Sanderson said that Dr Evan Harris and Lord Avebury – both Lib Dems – had engineered a clever parliamentary pincer movement that resulted in the Government being forced into bringing forward its own amendment to abolish the law.
Having elicited the promise from Ministers in the House of Commons that the law would be abolished, Lord Avebury, who has been campaigning against the blasphemy laws for decades, then brought forward his own amendment to ensure that the Government could not renege on its commitment.
The ancient law was called the common law offence of blasphemous libel, and was widely thought to be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
Despite this, the Government had not been keen to abolish it, we believe because of fear of discomforting the Established Church. They see abolition as an attack on their privileged position and a possible first step towards disestablishment.
Ariane Sherine, the woman who prompted the atheist bus campaign, was also given a special award for her high-profile achievement.
The photo used to illustrate this report is of Lord Avebury, left, with Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the NSS.
When blasphemy was finally abolished last year, the NSS organised a fun-filled event in central London to celebrate its passing. Read more about the Bye-Bye Blasphemy party here.