From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Sacrilege is the violation or injurious treatment of a sacred object. In a less proper sense, any transgression against the virtue of religion would be a sacrilege. It can come in the form of irreverence to sacred persons, places, and things. When the sacrilegious offense is verbal, it is called blasphemy. The term 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 offenses 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 criminalized sacrilege in an even more expansive sense, including heresy and schism, and offenses 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.
In post-Reformation England, sacrilege was a criminal offense 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.
Most modern nations have abandoned laws against sacrilege out of respect for freedom of expression, save 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 decriminalization, sacrilegious acts are still often regarded with public opprobrium, even by non-adherents of the offended religion, especially when these acts are perceived as manifestations of hatred toward a particular sect or creed.
Confusion with the term "Religion"
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. On the contrary, the root words sacrilege and religion developed independently and are linked only by a similarity in subject matter, and not by any actual substance of meaning. Thus, sacrilegious and religious are by no means opposite terms.