Museum Curators on Trial for Blasphemy

[UPDATE, July 12, 2010: The curators have been convicted and fined.]

The AP reports:

[T]he two prominent Moscow art curators who put on [an art] show are facing the prospect of three years in prison … [under] the law against inciting religious hatred….

In one [painting in the show], Christ appeared to his disciples as Mickey Mouse. In another, of the crucifixion, the head of Christ was replaced by the Order of Lenin medal, the highest award of the Soviet Union.

[One curator, Yury] Samodurov, who was the museum’s director from its founding in 1996 until he stepped down in 2008, had already once been convicted of inciting religious hatred and fined the equivalent of $3,600 for an exhibit in 2003 called “Caution: Religion!”

The exhibit was closed a few days after it opened after a group of altar boys defaced many of the contemporary paintings, which used religious allusions to express attitudes toward religion, culture and the state….

Religious ultra-nationalist groups won the support of the Russian Orthodox Church in pushing prosecutors to bring charges in 2008 ….

Yerofeyev said the aim of the “Forbidden Art” exhibit, which comprised works that had been banned from shows at major museums and galleries in 2006, was to show the reality of censorship. Religion was not the intended theme, he said.

The trial is nearly over, and a decision from the judge is expected July 12. I refer to this as a blasphemy prosecution, because the underlying statute — which I’ve seen described in the Russian press as applying to incitement of hatred or hostility — seems to be being interpreted as a blasphemy law: Use of religious symbols in a way that highly offends members of the religion is being treated as punishable even when the symbols are unlikely to provoke hatred against members of that group. (I oppose incitement-of-hatred laws, too, but I just wanted to note that here the law is being interpreted considerably more broadly, a tendency that is itself one of the reasons to oppose such laws.)

Thanks to Prof. Howard Friedman (Religion Clause) for the pointer.