Take God’s Name in Vain, Get Fined?

By Mark A. Kellner
Posted July 29, 2019

Residents of the town of Saonara, Italy, near the northern city of Padua, will soon face new measures designed to combat so-called “quality of life” offenses, such as walking a dog without a leash, dumping trash in public places, or mowing their lawns at the wrong time of day.

And among these coming regulations: A fine of €400, roughly $445 in the United States, for anyone who would “blaspheme against any faith or religion” or curse in public.

“Blasphemy is offensive; it offends me,” Mayor Walter Stefan told Britain’s Telegraph newspaper. “With this law you will not be able to cause [offense] to any religion; we have to respect the faithful.”

The mayor, whom the newspaper said is a practicing Catholic, declared the blasphemy ban covered all religions: “It is valid for Allah, Buddha or Mohammad,” he said.

Mayor Stefan is determined to elevate social behavior in this community of 10,000 located about 16 miles southwest of Venice. “There may be bigger problems around, but we can’t consider civility banal,” he said. “If we let this go, young people will become louts. We want to create a courteous community and behavior that prevents conflict.”

Italy as a whole had anti-blasphemy laws on the books as recently as 1999, just 20 years ago. However, offenses against “the deity” remain on the books in some areas, and a man was fined €100 ($112.50) last year for committing blasphemy in front of a school.

Free Speech Includes Profanity, Supreme Court Rules

For Americans accustomed to all sorts of language in the public square—let alone any who’ve survived basic training in the U.S. Marine Corps—the notion of a ban on blasphemy and swear words might seem unimaginable. Time and again, the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that “freedom of speech,” contained in the First Amendment to the Constitution, means that profanity cannot be banned outright, although it can be regulated in certain circumstances.

Indeed, Western culture overall is so coarsened in some respects that foul language is hardly surprising anymore. In 2014, San Diego State University professor Wendy Patrick—whose main job as a prosecutor requires her to quote highly obscene language in court as part of a given case—lamented the casualness with which college students slide into unpleasant speech.

Patrick, who has studied theology and is also an ordained minister, says that her “students have no qualms” about dropping bad words at any moment and for any reason. She told the Deseret News newspaper, “The culture in college campuses is that unless they’re disruptive or violating the rules, that’s (just) the way kids talk.”

In that same report, Rabbi David Wolpe, spiritual leader of Los Angeles’ Sinai Temple, said there was a case to be made for not saying the first thing that comes to mind, especially if it’s profane: “Expressing everything that is within you is a dangerous cultural idea,” he said. “Discipline and restraint [are] as important to the shaping of personal character as is full expression.”

While it is admirable that Mayor Stefan is concerned about potential loutishness in the younger generation, the idea of neighbors presumably snitching on neighbors and reporting every fail when it comes to language or respect for religion is a bit perplexing. Is this what Saonara wants to be known for? Should such monitoring be encouraged? It’s nice to have civility, but must it be enforced by a surveillance culture?

God Opposes Profanity

There is no question that God, via the Ten Commandments, opposes profane speech: “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain” (Exodus 20:7). Traditionally, believers have understood the third commandment’s injunction as also prohibiting profanity.

In Leviticus 24:10–16, we read the story of someone in the camp of the Israelites who blasphemed and cursed God. Moses, interpreting and applying the third commandment, decreed the punishment: death by stoning. Clearly, such talk was viewed quite seriously in Moses’ day.

In a message titled “His Holy Name, Our Reverent Life,” Pastor Doug Batchelor talks about the seriousness of handling and speaking God’s name. One important emphasis is to make sure our lives measure up to the name of Jesus: “The best way to not take the name of God in vain is to live like a Christian,” he said.

Even conscientious believers, however, can worry about one thing: Can they commit what is called the “unpardonable sin,” one that involves blasphemy?

In Matthew 12:31, Jesus tells His disciples, “Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men.”

This verse has caused more than one Christian a great deal of anxiety. But there is good news for those who are perplexed: God is a God of infinite love who will forgive all sins that are confessed to Him. You can read more about this in Pastor Doug's new book What Is the Unpardonable Sin? It offers a message of hope for those who are perplexed.

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