After years of decreasing influence for religion in public life, Ireland’s new blasphemy law has free speech campaigners worried.
After decades of increasing secularization, Irish President Mary McAleese signed into law last week fresh penalties for the ancient crime of blasphemy, befuddling a general public that didn't see the need and infuriating free speech campaigners.
The Roman Catholic church, which once wielded great social power here, didn't seek the new law, nor was any other apparent constituency pushing for it. Justice Minister Dermot Ahern, the law's strongest advocate, said that Ireland would be better off without it shortly after he introduced the bill to parliament.
"The optimal approach ... would be to abolish [the existing blasphemy law]," he said at the time, but added that the Irish Constitution demands that blasphemy be defined as a crime. "As a republican, my personal position is that church and state should be separate. But I do not have the luxury of ignoring our constitution."
By his reckoning, Ireland has been violating its constitution for the past 48 years – since the passage of a 1961 law on defamation that mentioned blasphemy but was vague in its language and non-specific about potential penalties. When the government decided to update defamation law, he argues, it was legally bound to include the new criminal charge of blasphemous libel, punishable by a fine of €25,000 ($35,000).
Irish legal scholars have generally agreed with his interpretation. "I don't like the idea of a crime of blasphemy, but the minister was right," says Eoin O'Dell, a senior lecturer at the School of Law, Trinity College Dublin. But atheists and free speech advocates have been irate.
Ann James, secretary of the Humanist Society of Ireland, concedes that the 1937 Constitution, which enshrines freedom of speech at the same time that it calls for blasphemy laws, contains many religious references that are out of the step with the times. All of them should be revised via a popular referendum, she argues. "Unfortunately, it's cheaper and easier for the government to introduce this flawed legislation," she says.