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Opinion: 'Debating religious ideas isn't inciting to hatred'

Introducing a blasphemy law in the 21st century has damaged our reputation internationally, writes Selina Campbell.

Selina Campbell Humanist Association of Ireland

IF I ASKED you what comes to mind when you hear the word “blasphemy”, what would you say? Would you think of comical scenes from Life of Brian? Or of places where religious oppression is rife?

Would you even be aware that in Ireland blasphemy is a crime that could cost you up to €25,000? If not, you’re probably about to hear a lot more about our blasphemy law. In 2018, we may be voting on repealing it.

An unenforceable law

2009 saw the introduction of the Defamation Act. Sections 36 and 37 outline the crime of blasphemy, making Ireland the only Western country to introduce such a law in the 21st century. Despite recommendations to remove references to blasphemy from our Constitution, the government decided a referendum was too expensive for a country in recession. Instead, they introduced a law written in a way intended to make it unenforceable.

Section 36 states that:

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 €25,000.

To commit the crime, your blasphemous matter must be insulting to a religion and you must intend to cause offence to a substantial number of adherents to that religion. Section 37 outlines when your premises can be searched.

Silliness of the law

Most of us are aware of the infamous Stephen Fry complaint over comments made on a TV show when asked about his faith. The investigation was dropped when Gardaí couldn’t find enough offended people. The story was reported globally, embarrassingly emphasising the silliness of the law.

The Rubberbandit, Blindboy Boatclub, was also investigated recently over comments he made on TV about the Eucharist. As enraged as the complainants were, the complaint was not upheld.

This shows us that the law is a bit like Swiss cheese – full of holes. What qualifies as a “substantial number”? How can one prove intent to cause outrage? If you can prove that your “blasphemous” matter contained genuine educational value, then you’re off the hook.

What we need to ask is why it is seen as a crime if religious feelings are hurt? For any other reason you would defend your beliefs. Why is religion above this, instead giving people the option to make a complaint that could lead to prosecution? This reaction to offended religious feelings seems very extreme.

It compromises freedom of speech

While nobody should be targeted in an act of violence or hatred specifically because of their religion, this should be dealt with under an Incitement to Hatred Act. Blasphemy laws don’t provide this kind of protection. Having this law on our statute books raises a number of issues.

It compromises our right to freedom of speech by taking away the right to express beliefs for fear of uttering what can be perceived as an offence. This isn’t about religious versus non-religious beliefs, this affects each and every one of us.

However, the law does discriminate against non-religious people. As we know from the most recent census, 10% of the population have no religion. Having a law in place that excludes a substantial number of citizens is not acceptable. Also, introducing a law that is purposely written to render it unenforceable promotes disrespect for our legal system. Laws should be introduced to be adhered to, not to fill deficits.

On top of this, introducing a blasphemy law in the 21st century has damaged our reputation internationally. Ireland’s blasphemy law has been used as an example of Western hypocrisy by oppressive regimes who use blasphemy laws as a tool for persecution.

Repealing our blasphemy law isn’t turning our back on religion. We need to educate our children on different cultures. How can we do this if religious beliefs are placed above criticism and debate? A few hurt feelings are not going to truly cause any harm if it educates us without the fear of breaking the law.

To repeal our blasphemy law would show that we believe that debating religious ideas isn’t inciting to hatred and would show solidarity with the people who continue to be oppressed under these laws.

If we look at it this way, voting to repeal the law can enrich our already diverse society.

Selina Campbell is a member of the Humanist Association of Ireland Campaign Team. The HAI would welcome a referendum to repeal this law and believe that removing it is a positive step towards a more equal society. For more information see www.humanism.ie and follow them on Twitter and Facebook, using #blasphemyaware to join the conversation.

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About the author:

Selina Campbell  / Humanist Association of Ireland

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