Will an Irish Rule Against "Religious Hatred" Be Worse Than Blasphemy?

Religious Hatred

The Convention on the Constitution of the Republic of Ireland has recommended that Ireland's archaic anti-blasphemy law be repealed. As per the procedure for constitutional amendments, a recommendation will be followed up by a debate in the Irish Parliament, the Oireachtas, and a timeframe for a referendum. 82 out of 100 convention delegates voted to introduce new legislative rules to include “incitement to religious hatred.” The latter development been criticized by free speech and secular activists as potentially worsening the situation in Ireland.

New Proposed Rule Opens Door to Suppression of Free Speech

The president of the National Secular Society, Terry Sanderson, fears that the repeal of the blasphemy law, which lacks means of enforcement, would be rendered meaningless if it was succeeded by a rule that could potentially open the door to random and malicious accusations of “religious hatred,” and thus inhibiting free expression. He compared the situation to a precedent in England:

"When the blasphemy law in England was scrapped there was a similar call for a replacement. It came as the Racial and Religious Hatred Act. In its original form this was much more restrictive than the blasphemy law – which had become obsolete and unusable anyway. It was only after vigorous campaigning by the National Secular Society and others that the legislation was amended to protect free speech. The Irish legislators should learn from that and not create a law that gives religious groups an open door to suppress criticism and claim 'religious hatred' whenever someone says something that they don't like. Unless it is carefully framed, such a law has all the potential to be another form of blasphemy law, but one that has teeth."

Ireland, which is a Roman Catholic-dominated country, incorporated an anti-blasphemy law in Article 40.6.1 of the Constitution of 1937 and in common law practice, which reads “the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”

However, it has rarely been enforced. Hearing a complaint in 1999, the Supreme Court of Ireland ruled that the law was incompatible with the Constitution's articles on freedom of speech and religious equality. The national debate was aggravated by the 2009 Defamation Act, which introduced fines of up to 25,000 euros for those convicted of “publishing or uttering blasphemous matters.”

Free speech advocates have cited the interest of religious groups in having legal methods of silencing critics. The Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland and the Order of the Knights of St. Columbanus have both advocated the retention of the blasphemy law so as “not to suffer unwarranted offence arising from the gratuitous impugning of sacred matter.”

Irish Blasphemy Law is Being Used by Islamic Countries to Justify Oppression of Free Speech and Religious Freedom

At the convention, the secular and free speech points of view were represented by organizations such as Atheist Ireland, the Humanist Association of Ireland and the Irish Council of Civil Liberties. As part of the national debate on both the Constitution and the 2009 Defamation Act, Sinn Féin Senator Kathryn Reilly cited a United Nations report that asserted that blasphemy laws are not compatible with human rights and said "Blasphemy is not a valid offence in public law and should not be a criminal offence in a democratic society that respects diversity.”

Legal critics panned the 2009 Defamation Act as impossible to implement. Dr. Neville Cox of Trinity College Dublin opined that the part of the 2009 Defamation Act requiring publishers to have a proven intent to provoke anger amongst a large number of followers "will be very difficult successfully to prosecute the offence.” Professor Maeve Cooke of the University College Dublin, stated that the constitution's anti-blasphemy law prevented the essential freedoms and balance in society necessary to “flourish as a human being.” Michael Nugent, chairman of Atheist Ireland, spoke at the convention and asserted that a blasphemy law was inherently discriminatory against atheist convictions and sensibilities. He advocated to the convention to model a new clause protecting free speech on Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

There was also strong concern expressed about the global repercussions of Ireland's retention of codes against the criticism of religion. Atheist Ireland's Human Rights Officer Jane Donnelly pointed out that Islamic states led by Pakistan had been demanding “an extension of blasphemy laws around the world, using wording taken directly from Ireland's new blasphemy law.” The Irish Council of Churches has also said Ireland's blasphemy law could be used as an example to “justify violence and oppression against minorities in other parts of the world.”

 

Opinions

Nirav Mehta

Why remove an anti-blasphemy law if you intend to replace it with a new restriction on free speech? The Irish Constitutional Convention and now the Irish legislature are engaging in a national exercise in futility. It is foolhardy to even ask the opinion of a religious body in such matters. Their loyalty is to the Bible and Qur'an and not to the Constitution of Ireland. The last time special interests had a say in the framing of a constitution, the "peculiar institution" (slavery) got constitutional protection in the U.S.

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