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Dublin: 22 °C Friday 25 July, 2014

Column: Why it’s time to get rid of Ireland’s blasphemy laws

Blasphemy laws have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and have no place in a modern democracy like Ireland, writes Michael Nugent.

Michael Nugent

BLASPHEMY LAWS ENDANGER freedom of speech and deny equality. They are arguably against Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This was recognised by the UK House of Lords Select Committee on Religious Offences in 2003; such laws are known to have a universal ‘chilling effect’ upon normal freedom of expression.

An inclusive blasphemy law, which Ireland’s law seeks to be, has been historically shown to be inadequate for protecting religious beliefs in conflict with one another.

Infringing on human rights

Blasphemy laws are used to infringe on human rights around the world. They frequently lead to arbitrary arrest, detention, poor treatment in custody including torture, dubious legal procedures and poor application of justice. Examples include Greece, Poland, Algeria (prison sentences of varying length, failure of due process in trials, trials in absentia); Indonesia (longer prison sentences); Sudan (corporal punishment); Egypt (torture); Pakistan and Saudi Arabia (capital punishment).

Some specific examples from recent years: Asia Bibi, a Christian mother, is facing execution in Pakistan for comparing Jesus with Mohammad, and two politicians were assassinated for speaking out on her behalf. Rimsha Masih, a Christian girl with special needs, was charged with blasphemy in Pakistan after a Muslim cleric planted burnt pages of the Quran as evidence against her. Alexander Aan, an atheist civil servant, was jailed in Indonesia after writing on Facebook that ‘god does not exist’.

Additionally, blasphemy laws have been condemned by reputable international bodies. Since 2011 the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations has considered laws against blasphemy and religious defamation as constituting violations of international law and has asked for their removal. The Venice Commission, which advises European states on constitutional issues, advises that incitement to hatred, including religious hatred, should be a crime; that insult to religious feelings should not be a crime; and that the offence of blasphemy should be abolished and should not be reintroduced.

The blasphemy law in Ireland

Atheist Ireland argues that the Irish blasphemy law in particular is harmful.

The Irish blasphemy law reinforces the religious ethos of the 1937 Constitution. The preamble states that all authority of the State comes from a specific god called the Most Holy Trinity. You cannot become President or be appointed as a Judge unless you take a religious oath. There are also other references in the Constitution to religion, as opposed to gods. We should be removing 1930s theistic references from the Irish Constitution, or updating them to reflect the reality of Ireland today, not legislating to enforce them.

The blasphemy law brings our parliament and our laws into disrepute. It does not protect religious belief; it incentivises outrage and it criminalises free speech. It also treats religious beliefs as more valuable than atheistic or secular beliefs. There are definitional problems around the wording that is citing elements of degree to enact the offence. And we have already seen from the X Case, when the State sought an injunction to prevent a raped pregnant child from leaving the country, that religiously-inspired Constitutional provisions can be implemented when nobody expects it to happen.

This Irish example used to promote universal blasphemy laws

Islamic states, led by Pakistan, use the Irish blasphemy law at the UN to promote universal blasphemy laws. Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion, has advised Atheist Ireland:

Of course you are right that the major damage done by this legislation is the international one.

I wouldn’t expect any harsh verdicts being handed down in Ireland, but those countries that continue to have an intimidating anti-blasphemy practice like to quote European countries to unmask Western hypocrisy. I hope things will be moving in the right direction.

Many reputable Irish bodies have already recommended removing the offence of blasphemy from our Constitution and laws.

In 1991, the Law Reform Commission recommended deleting it as there was no place for such an offence in a society which respects freedom of speech. In 1996 the Irish Constitution Review Group also recommended that it be deleted from the Constitution. In 2008 the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution recommended deleting it as a modern Constitution should not expressly prohibit blasphemy.

Atheist Ireland is now asking the Convention to recommend removing the offence of blasphemy from our Constitution.

Michael Nugent is a writer from Dublin, Ireland, and chair of the advocacy group Atheist Ireland. To view the full submission to the Constitutional Convention click here. He has written three books, co-written two and was one of the three writers of comedy musical play I, Keano. You can read his blog here.

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