Gentle readers beware!
blas•phe•my [noun] Profane talk of something supposed to be sacred; impious irreverence. (Oxford English Dictionary)
Illegal in Michigan? You bet! Well, bloody hell — who knew?
Take the Lord’s name in vain in Michigan, among other states, and you’re not only busted by the Third Commandment, but you’re on the wrong side of the law.
Children of God be warned!
Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma and South Carolina all have blasphemy laws on the books. Although rarely enforced, these blatant violations of the First Amendment persist to this day — yet to be challenged in the courts.
Michigan’s latest version, heralding from 1931, neglects to define blasphemy, nor does it suggest specific penalties for the misdemeanor offense.
Two questions arise — What god(s) are we even talking about here, and which level of misdemeanor punishment applies?
Let’s address the second concern first. Presumably if The Lord God, He who commanded light to shine out of darkness, and noted luminary of self-admitted acts of jealous rage, were to be offended in some petty way — if a mortal were to, say, make a graven image of him (see above), or dissed the supreme being in some other inscrutable manner, they may be subject to hell fire and/or criminal punishment under Michigan Compiled Law. Violations of the misdemeanor statute fall into two categories: up to 93 days in jail and $500, or up to one year in jail and up to $1000 in fines. A merciful god would opt for the former.
The answer to the second question remains a bit more dodgy. Are we talking about an undefined generic wrathful deity, or perhaps something more specific like Yahweh, Allah, Elohim, Shiva, Zeus, Thor or Vigoth the Worm God?
There actually have been a couple of modern-day legal scuffles over these archaic statutes.
Pennsylvania’s now repealed 1977 blasphemy law folded under judicial scrutiny. In 2007, filmmaker George Kalman applied to the Pennsylvania Department of State to incorporate under the name I Choose Hell Productions LLC. His application was denied because his business name “may not contain words that constitute blasphemy, profane cursing or swearing or that profane the Lord’s name.”
Kalman filed suit in 2009, citing constitutional protections. District Court Judge Michael Bayslon agreed, ruling the blasphemy law violated the Establishment and the Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment.
While Michigan may not enforce its blasphemy statute, in 1998 officials invoked a 100-year old similar law in what became known as the “Cussing Canoeist” case. Timothy Boomer was convicted for letting loose a string of profanities, including a couple of choice f-bombs, after tipping his canoe on the Rifle River. The 1897 statute prohibited the use of vulgar language and swearing in the presence of women and children — delicate creatures that they are. Boomer was fined $75 and sentenced to two days of community service.
The cussing law went down on a constitutional challenge though. Michigan’s Court of Appeals overturned Boomer’s conviction. Judge William Murphy wrote:
“Allowing a prosecution where one utters ‘insulting’ language could possibly subject a vast percentage of the populace to a misdemeanor conviction. We find it unquestionable that [the law], as drafted, reaches constitutionally protected speech, and it operates to inhibit the exercise of First Amendment rights.”
Okay, we’ve had some fun with this, but there truly is need for a serious conversation on the topic. Recent events demand that the concept of blasphemy receive a 21st century makeover.
Mustafa Akyol, author of “Islam Without Extremes, A Muslim Case for Liberty”, penned an op-ed in the New York Times last week calling for an overhaul of the definition of blasphemy. Akyol calls on Muslim statesmen, clerics and intellectuals to “address and reinterpret Islam’s traditional take on ‘blasphemy.'” He reminds readers that the Quran does not advocate violence for the offense, saying:
Wise Muslim religious leaders from the entire world would do Islam a great favor if they preached and reiterated such a nonviolent and nonoppressive stance in the face of insults against Islam. That sort of instruction could also help their more intolerant coreligionists understand that rage is a sign of nothing but immaturity. The power of any faith comes not from its coercion of critics and dissenters. It comes from the moral integrity and the intellectual strength of its believers.
Or, as put by @TheTweetOfGod:
Bonus: For a list of silly laws still on the books click here.