Outrage as Ireland makes blasphemous libel a crime

By staff writers
23 Jul 2009

Irish President Mary McAleese has signed into law the Defamation Act, which includes clauses that create the offence of "blasphemous libel". Civil rights campaigners are predicting outrage.

The effect of the new law is to make it technically a crime in Ireland to produce or say anything "that is 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."

Committing the offence could incur a fine of up to €25,000. Human rights and free speech advocates, humanists, atheists and non-conformist Christians have spoken out strongly against the law - which is likely to be tested shortly.

Critics say that the Irish parliament seems to have been acting under pressure from Catholic bishops in particular. The Catholic Church has seen its moral and spiritual authority massively undermined by abuse scandals and is seeking to fight back against those it perceives as attacking it.

The Irish president, Mary McAleese, is a Roman Catholic.

The group Atheist Ireland have already pledged to put out a blasphemous statement, offensive to all religions in Ireland, in order to test the law. They are holding a public event on Saturday 24 July 2009 and have established a Facebook group for the cause (http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=190675270453).

Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion, society and politics thinktank Ekklesia, which argued for the abolition of blasphemy laws in Britain, commented: "This is a very sad day. Criminalising religious offence - whether it is in Ireland, Pakistan or anywhere else - is an offence against religion, as well as an abuse of human dignity and freedom. Christians, in particular, should remember that their own founder was executed on a charge of blasphemy. Yet he told his own followers to love their enemies, not to persecute them. It is to be hoped that this law will be challenged both morally and, in all likelihood, in the courts."

The blasphemy law in Ireland was passed in the Dail, as part of Defamation Act, with no debate on the blasphemy amendments. The debate was restricted to an hour for the full Bill.

The Justice Minister, Dermot Ahern said that extending time for the blasphemy amendments would just be regurgitating what has been discussed ad nauseum. There was an average of six TDs in the Dail during debate. The Bill then passed through Seanad (the Senate) before being signed into law by President.

Civil rights activists say that the blasphemous libel provision is "inherently undemocratic" and that the way it has been passed into law is "negligent and scandalous" - infringing human rights, freedom of speech and freedom of religion and belief.

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