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Sacrilege and the law

Bert Samuels

Thursday, November 19, 2020

The ninth edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defines the word sacrilege as “the violation or misuse of what is regarded as sacred”. It is derived from the Latin sacrilegium, meaning “stealer of sacred things”.

The Larceny Act of Jamaica addresses the offence of sacrilege at Section 38. It reads: “Every person who:

(a) breaks and enters any place of divine worship and commits any felony therein; or

(b) breaks out of any place of divine worship, having committed any felony therein, shall be guilty of felony called sacrilege, and on conviction thereof liable to imprisonment with hard labour for any term not exceeding 10 years.”

Of note is the fact that the law seeks to punish not the entry into a particular building commonly referred to as a church, but rather, the space where the activity of “divine worship” takes place. So, if our home, or a rented space in a hotel, or shopping centre, or a pocomania yard, or a mosque is the place of choice for the conduct of divine worship, they all qualify as a place where the offence of sacrilege may be committed.

The law captures both those who enter the place of worship and commit a felony therein, as well as those who may have entered lawfully but commit a felony while there and breaks out. In most cases, the felony committed is burglary accompanied by larceny. The classic example of the crime of sacrilege is entry into the space of worship and the theft of sound equipment used there. But, once one enters and takes any item of value, sacrilege has been committed. This may include the removal of wine glasses, offering, benches, or chairs.

It may be argued that the crime of sacrilege — punishable with a 10-year maximum imprisonment — is consistent with the protection of our right to freedom of religion, and the protection of our right to “manifest and propagate his religion in worship, teaching and observance” (Section 17, the Charter of Fundamental Rights). And so, any act interfering with this religious right is jealously protected by law.

It is noteworthy that simple larceny is punishable by a five-year imprisonment. So, for example, if a person stole the wine glasses and offering from the back seat of a pastor's car, the maximum five-year imprisonment is a half of the maximum term they would serve, should they enter his church and remove the said items. The place of worship, under the law, is considered off-limits, sacred, and intolerant of criminal activity. The 10-year maximum sentence is, therefore, a huge deterrent to criminals from desecrating our places of worship. This is why sacrilege is a committal matter, which means that it cannot be tried by a parish judge, but rather only in the High Court before a judge sitting with a jury.

Bert Samuels is an attorney-at-law. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or bert.samuels@gmail.com .