Court blocks BBC blasphemy case

Members of various Christian organisations burn copies of TV licences in protest at the decision by the BBC to broadcast the West End musical production of "Jerry Springer - The Opera", outside BBC Television Centre in west London, January 7, 2005. A Christian activist has lost his bid to use blasphemy laws to prosecute a top BBC executive over the decision to screen "Jerry Springer-The Opera", a musical many Christians found offensive. REUTERS/Stephen Hird

LONDON (Reuters) - The High Court ruled on Wednesday that a Christian activist may not prosecute a BBC executive under blasphemy laws over the corporation’s screening of “Jerry Springer - The Opera”.

Based on U.S. television host Jerry Springer’s brash talk show, the musical depicts Jesus being referred to as “a little bit gay” and features Eve attempting to fondle his genitals.

The BBC’s decision to air the show in 2005 sparked demonstrations, a record number of complaints from viewers and a heated debate about whether freedom of expression is more important than religious sensitivities.

Stephen Green of the Christian Voice group went to the High Court to try to overturn a decision by a district judge not to allow him to pursue his case against BBC Director-General Mark Thompson and Jon Thoday, the musical’s producer.

But in a ruling handed down on Wednesday, two senior judges said the show did not contravene blasphemy laws.

“The play had been performed regularly in major theatres in London for a period of nearly two years without any sign of it undermining society or occasioning civil strife or unrest,” the ruling said.

The BBC welcomed the decision, saying it went ahead with the broadcast only after careful consideration.

“We believe the work, taken in its proper context, satirises and attacks exploitative chat shows and not the Christian religion,” the BBC said in a statement. “The Court’s judgement today vindicates that decision in full.”

Civil liberties group Liberty, which made a written submission during the case, called Britain’s blasphemy law outdated and “ripe for repeal”. It argued that the offence of blasphemy violated the European Convention on Human Rights.

Reporting by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Steve Addison