Ireland introduces law to ban blasphemy

A law forbidding blasphemy is due to come into force in Ireland this October. Offenders could be fined up to 25,000 Euros.

The  Defamation Bill, which was originally proposed by Ireland's justice minister, Michael McDowell, in 2006,  received final approval on 10 July this year, when it passed by a slim margin of 23-22.

In an unusual move, President Mary McAleese has called a meeting of the Council of State this Wednesday, to discuss the legality of the legislation rather than simply signing it into law. The president alone will then make the decision on whether to refer the legislation to the Supreme Court after the meeting.

In Ireland, it has been a crime to publish blasphemous material since 1961, although nobody has ever been convicted.

The new law makes speaking blasphemously  a crime as well. However  in order to be found guilty, there has to be proof that the offender intended to cause outrage with a statement that is abusive or insulting. The statement also has to produce a violent reaction.

The bill states that a person publishes or utters blasphemous matter if:

 * He or she publishes or utters matter 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.

* He or she intends, by the publication or utterance of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.

The bill puts the onus on a defendant to prove that a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in the matter to which the offence relates.

Many countries have abolished their blasphemy laws in recent years. In Britain, the Church of England was protected from blasphemy up until 10 January last year when the government  voted to abolish blasphemy laws.

Canada lists blasphemous libel as a crime under the Criminal Code, which carries a penalty of up to two years in jail. But the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees free speech rights that supersede the blasphemy law.

The Canadian code says: "No person shall be convicted of an offence under this section for expressing in good faith and in decent language, or attempting to establish by argument used in good faith and conveyed in decent language, an opinion on a religious subject."

In the United States, blasphemy has never been considered a crime.

In countries where Islam is the state religion, blasphemy is still considered a serious offence. Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan, still use the death penalty for blasphemous crimes.

The last person in Britain to be sent to prison for committing blasphemy,  was John William Gott, a trouser salesman from Bradford, who led the Freethought Socialist League.  He published a number of leaflets attacking Christianity in what were considered at the time very abusive terms. He was sentenced in 1921 to nine months of hard labour.

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