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Ireland bucks trend with anti-blasphemy law

Protection for the pious cometh, and that right soon?

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Take the Lord’s name in vain and if the lightning bolt doesn’t get you, the Irish Government soon will.

That’s the fond hope of Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern, who last week proposed the insertion of a blasphemy clause into the Defamation Bill, currently before the Irish Parliament. The clear intention behind this move is to hit naysayers and non-believers where it hurts them most – in their pockets.

The clause states: "A person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €100,000."

It then defines "Blasphemous matter" as "grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion; and he or she intends, by the publication of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage".

The reason behind the proposal would appear to be a small logical difficulty with the Irish Constitution. This contains provisions which state that "the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent material is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law" – but there is no actual law against blasphemy.

On the single occasion that an attempt was made to prosecute a satirical Irish newspaper under this provision - Corway v Independent Newspapers, in 1999 - the Supreme Court eventually concluded that it was not possible to say "of what the offence of blasphemy consists".

For these reasons, the Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution, last year recommended that the Constitution be amended to remove all references to sedition and blasphemy, and redrafted to bring it into line of article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, providing a positive right to freedom of expression.

That would be one solution: the Minister for Justice’s proposal is another. Critics of this proposal point out that the Constitution also includes provision for freedom of expression, subject to the proviso that it not undermine public order and morality. Moreover, a law that defended only the Christian deity would be in breach of article 44, which guarantees religious equality.

Labour spokesman on Justice Pat Rabbitte has proposed an alternative approach. He has put forward an amendment that accepts the principle of a blasphemy law, but reduces the maximum fine to €1,000 and specifically excepts from the definition of blasphemy any material which has "literary, artistic, social or academic merit".

It may appear strange that the Irish are looking to introduce such a law at the very moment that other governments – in particular the UK government – are doing away with specific provisions on blasphemy. The Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 made it an offence to "stir up hatred against a person on the grounds of their religion".

This was followed by the abolition of much older common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill 2008, on the grounds that they were inappropriate to a modern society and Christian-centric. However, they left open the possibility of quirky prosecutions, such as that of Gay News by Mary Whitehouse in 1977 for daring to publish a poem – "The Love that dares to speak its name" by James Kirkup – that openly speculated about Jesus’ sexuality.

The law has therefore evolved away from protecting the dignity of a remote celestial being - whom many clergy have always believed to be quite capable of looking after Himself - to dissuading people from attacking other individuals on the grounds of their religious belief. According to the Government, the test in UK law – of inciting hatred – goes some way further than simply hurting the feelings of believers, and requires a conscious effort on the part of the offender to threaten or cause harm.

Insofar as it talks about the feelings of religious groups, the Irish proposal appears to sit halfway between the older UK concept of blasphemy, and the newer model designed to protect individuals from harm.

However, if the Government gets its way, UK Law in this area looks set to move on a stage further, as the Equality Bill, now before Parliament brings together nine separate pieces of legislation and creates a single framework for all legislation on discrimination. This is either a simple tidying up measure or, as some critics have warned, a rag bag of "protected characteristics" that will give those who have such characteristics greater rights before the law than those without them.

A person bullied for their intense belief in Scientology, then, will receive strengthened protection under this law - someone bullied because they are obese, dress like a Goth, or for no apparent reason will have to stick up for themselves. ®

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