For other uses, see Sacrilege (disambiguation).
Konstantin Makovsky. The Bulgarian martyresses. 1877 Atrocities of bashibazouks in Bulgarian Orthodox Church

Sacrilege is the violation or injurious treatment of a sacred object or person. It can come in the form of irreverence to sacred persons, places, and things. When the sacrilegious offence is verbal, it is called blasphemy, and when physical, it is often called desecration. In a less proper sense, any transgression against what is seen as the virtue of religion would be a sacrilege. "Sacrilege" originates from the Latin sacer, sacred, and legere, to steal, as in Roman times it referred to the plundering of temples and graves. By the time of Cicero, sacrilege had adopted a more expansive meaning, including verbal offences against religion and undignified treatment of sacred objects.

Most ancient religions have a concept analogous to sacrilege, often considered as a type of taboo. The basic idea is that sacred objects are not to be treated in the same way as other objects.


With the advent of Christianity as the official Roman religion, the Emperor Theodosius criminalised sacrilege in an even more expansive sense, including heresy and schism, and offences against the emperor, including tax evasion.

By the Middle Ages, the concept of sacrilege was again restricted to physical acts against sacred objects, and this forms the basis of all later Catholic teaching on the subject. A major offense was to tamper with a consecrated host, otherwise known as the Body of Christ.

Most modern nations have abandoned laws against sacrilege out of respect for freedom of expression except in cases where there is an injury to persons or property. In the United States, the U.S. Supreme Court case Burstyn v. Wilson (1952) struck down a statute against sacrilege, ruling that the term could not be narrowly defined in a way that would safeguard against the establishment of one church over another and that such statutes infringed upon the free exercise of religion and freedom of expression.

Despite their decriminalisation, sacrilegious acts are still sometimes regarded with strong disapproval by the public, even by non-adherents of the offended religion, especially when these acts are perceived as manifestations of hatred toward a particular sect or creed.


Owing to the phonetic similarities between the words sacrilegious and religious, and their spiritually-based uses in modern English, many people mistakenly assume that the two words are etymologically linked, or that one is an antonym of the other. Religious is derived from the Latin word religio, meaning "reverence, religion," (from religare, "to bind [to the god{s}]"; Tully derived it from re- [again] and legere [to read]), whereas sacrilegious is derived ultimately from the Latin combining form sacr-, meaning sacred, and the verb legere, meaning "to steal", "to collect", or "to read". The Latin noun sacrilegus means "one who steals sacred things".1

England and Wales

In post-Reformation England, sacrilege was a criminal offence for centuries, though its statutory definition varied considerably. Most English dictionaries of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries appealed to the primary sense of stealing objects from a church.

So much of the 1 Ed 6 c 12[1] (An Act for the Repeal of certain Statues concerning Treasons, Felonies, etc.) as related to sacrilege was repealed by the 7 & 8 Geo 4 c 27.

Section 10 of the 7 & 8 Geo 4 c 29 enacted:

That if any person shall break and enter any church or chapel, and steal therein any chattel, or having stolen any chattel in any church or chapel, shall break out of the same, every such offender, being convicted thereof, shall suffer death as a felon.

The corresponding section of the Irish Act 9 Geo 4 c 55 was identical.

Both of those sections were replaced[2] by section 50 of the Larceny Act 1861, which was described by its marginal note as "breaking and entering a church or chapel and committing any felony" and which read:

Whosoever shall break and enter any church, chapel, meeting house, or other place of divine worship, and commit any felony therein, or being in any church, chapel, meeting house, or other place of divine worship, shall commit any felony therein and break out of the same, shall be guilty of felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable, at the discretion of the court, to kept in penal servitude for life, or for any term not less than three years, or to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour, and with or without solitary confinement.

Hard labour

See section 118.

Solitary confinement

See section 119.

This offence was not triable at quarter sessions[2]

Section 50 of the Larceny Act 1861 was repealed by section 48(1) of, and the Schedule to, the Larceny Act 1916. It was replaced by section 24 of the Larceny Act 1916 which provided:

Every person who -
(1) breaks and enters any place of divine worship and commits any felony therein; or
(2) 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 penal servitude for life.

The words "arrestable offence" were substituted for the word "felony", in subsections (1) and (2), by section 10(1) of, and paragraph 12(1) of Schedule 2 to, the Criminal Law Act 1967.

Penal servitude

See section 1(1) of the Criminal Justice Act 1948 and the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1953.

Section 24 is replaced by sections 9 and 10 of the Theft Act 1968 (which create the offences of burglary and aggravated burglary.[3]

See also


  1. This Act of Parliament is cited by session and chapter. "1 Ed 6 c 12" means the statute passed in the first regnal year of Edward VI, chapter 12. For an explanation, see Citation of United Kingdom legislation.
  2. 1 2 James Edward Davis, The Criminal Law Consolidation Statutes of the 24 & 25 of Victoria, Chapters 94 to 100: Edited with Notes, Critical and Explanatory, Butterworths, 1861, p 58
  3. Griew, Edward. The Theft Acts 1968 and 1978. Sweet and Maxwell. Fifth Edition. 1986. Paragraph 4-01 at page 84.
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