The Blasphemy Ban in Denmark

Lars Grassmè Binderup, Eva Maria Lassen

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    Danish law includes an article criminalizing blasphemy. Thus, art. 140 in the Danish Penal Code states that:

    “Whoever, in public, mocks or scorns the religious doctrines or acts of worship of any lawfully existing religious community in this country, shall be liable to a fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 4 months.”

    The continued inclusion of art. 140 in Danish law is controversial from a human rights perspective, but it is perhaps also rather surprising. The law is to all intents and purposes dormant. The last conviction occurred in 1946 and the last prosecution in 1971. Furthermore, it can seem odd why Denmark would not have followed the trend of most other European states, including those with which Denmark normally compares itself, to abolish the article. Denmark is a highly secularised society with generally a relaxed attitude towards religion. And finally, surveys indicate that the Danish population favour abolition. However, as we will argue, the main explanation of the Danish exceptionalism and the most recent political decision from 2015 to retain the article lies in the fear of violent reactions to religious insult, including terrorism. The Mohammed cartoon crisis in 2005-6, the terrorist attack on a meeting on free speech in “Krudttønden” in Copenhagen in February 2015 and no doubt also the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, occurring just a few months before the decision, loomed large in the reasoning of experts and lawmakers. A secondary explanation, we shall submit, lies in political concern for the possible effects of an abolition of art. 140 on the status and circumstances of religious minorities in Denmark.

    In this article, we will first look at the historical development of the blasphemy ban, leading to the current art. 140 of the Danish Penal Code. The content and scope of art. 140 will be sketched, followed by a discussion of the few cases brought to court since 1933, reaching a climax with the Muhammed Cartoons in 2006. One legal particularity of the blasphemy ban will be given special attention, namely the reference to art. 140 in the Danish Alien’s Act which has the potential to bring the ban on blasphemy back to life by bringing it into play with penal systems of other countries with blasphemy laws.

    The article proceeds to outline the reactions of international human rights bodies to art. 140, focussing on the statement of the UN Special Rapporteur on Religion or Belief, as well as the assessment of art. 140 taken by Denmark’s National Human Rights Institution.

    The final part of the article will focus on the most recent developments in Denmark, having as a starting point a key report of the Danish Criminal Law Council on the consequences of abolishing the blasphemy law, published in February 2015. With basis in an analysis of the Council’s arguments, we proceed to analyse the views found in the political and religious landscape respectively, as well as the view of the Danish branch of PEN as an example of a national NGO. Finally, following a critical discussion of the main arguments raised in favour of retaining or abolishing the blasphemy ban, we will point to possible ways forward.
    Translated title of the contributionBlasfemiforbuddet i Danmark
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationBlasphemy and Freedom of Expression : Comparative, Theoretical and Historical Reflections after the Charlie Hebdo Massacre
    EditorsJeroen Temperman, András Koltay
    Place of PublicationCambridge, UK
    PublisherCambridge University Press
    Publication dateNov 2017
    ISBN (Print)978-1-108-41691-7
    ISBN (Electronic)9781108242189
    Publication statusPublished - Nov 2017


    • Blasphemy
    • Blasphemy ban
    • Freedom of expression
    • Freedom of religion
    • Art. 140 in the Danish Penal Code


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