A US government-affiliated religious freedom watchdog agency, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), has condemned a recently passed Danish law criminalizing the "inappropriate treatment" of religious texts. They argue that the law is incompatible with democratic principles and international law.
The law, passed by the Danish Parliament in December 2023, was spurred by recent Quran burnings and a perceived "terrorist threat." It specifies that "inappropriate treatment" includes acts like burning or defacing texts of major religions. Violators face fines or imprisonment for up to two years.
USCIRF characterizes the law as a blasphemy law, emphasizing that such laws conflict with human rights protecting freedom of speech and expression. They argue that criminalizing acts deemed disrespectful to religion only worsens the situation for religious minorities.
Commissioner David Curry of USCIRF strongly condemns the burning of religious texts but insists criminalizing blasphemy is a misguided approach. He predicts it will fuel harmful stereotypes and worsen the situation for religious minorities in Denmark.
He said, “USCIRF condemns the burning of religious texts or other objects of religious importance such as the Qur’an, the Bible, the Torah, the Vedas, and the Tripitaka (Pali Canon) as deeply uncivil and disrespectful.”
Another USCIRF Commissioner Stephen Schneck concurs, calling the law an example of governments sacrificing human rights in the pursuit of national security. “This amendment will only serve to propagate harmful stereotypes that could worsen the situation of religious minorities in Denmark.”
He urges Denmark to work with religious communities to tackle hatred and intolerance instead of restricting expression.
Denmark rejects accusations of violating international law and cites Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, recognizing limitations on freedom of expression when necessary for national security or public safety. Existing Danish law already criminalizes insulting foreign nations or their symbols.
While freedom of expression is generally protected, it can be limited under certain circumstances in a democratic society. These limitations can be imposed if prescribed by law and deemed necessary for various reasons, including national security, public safety, preventing crime, protecting health or morals, shielding personal reputations and safeguarding confidential information or judicial integrity.
Denmark's existing law exemplifies this principle. Before the recent amendment targeting religious texts, it already restricted speech by making it illegal to publicly insult foreign nations, their flags or emblems. This demonstrates that Denmark acknowledges the tension between free expression and other societal needs, even before the addition of the blasphemy provision. This context is crucial when evaluating the new law and its potential implications for freedom of expression within Denmark.
While Denmark seeks to address security concerns, USCIRF and others worry the new law is a dangerous step toward religious censorship.