Monday 21 October 2019

Ireland's blasphemy laws least restrictive in the world

Stephen Fry was the subject of the blasphemy allegation (Photo by Justin Tallis - WPA Pool /Getty Images)
Stephen Fry was the subject of the blasphemy allegation (Photo by Justin Tallis - WPA Pool /Getty Images)
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

A major international study has found that out of all the countries in the world that have a blasphemy law, Ireland's is the least restrictive.

Ireland had the lowest score out of 71 countries in a report analysing the extent to which such laws are in conflict with international human rights laws. At the other end of the scale were Iran and Pakistan, which can both impose the death penalty for blasphemy offences.

The report, by the US Commission on International Religious Freedoms, comes just months after blasphemy laws here came under the international spotlight when gardaí launched an investigation into comments made by comedian and actor Stephen Fry.

The probe was abandoned after gardaí failed to find a large group of people outraged by Mr Fry's comments on an RTÉ show in which he questioned the existence of God in a world where there is so much misery.

Under the controversial 2009 legislation, it is illegal to publish or utter a matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion.

One of the report's authors, human rights consultant Joelle Fiss, said the case showed that even if a person intends to blaspheme in Ireland, it is unlikely they will be prosecuted.

The report said the countries which scored lowest in the study were those which adhered closest to international law principles and have blasphemy laws which neither discriminate against different belief groups nor protect a state religion through punitive measures.

Fines of up to €25,000 are possible for blasphemy offences under the 2009 Defamation Act. However, no one has ever been prosecuted.

The Constitution mandates that blasphemy be an offence and the 2009 legislation was enacted to give it a clear definition in law. Former Taoiseach Enda Kenny signalled earlier this year there would be a referendum on the issue. The report found Ireland was among three countries whose laws allow for fines for the offence of blasphemy. The others are Spain and Switzerland.

The most common punishment internationally among blasphemy laws is imprisonment, with 86pc of all states imposing a prison penalty, while a few countries have lashings and the death penalty.

Ms Fiss called for the Irish law to be repealed in the interest of safeguarding debate.

"Ireland should repeal its blasphemy law to reaffirm that debating ideas, or even criticising religions, is not equivalent to inciting to hatred," she said. Ms Fiss said another reason to repeal the law would be to express solidarity with those who continue to be "persecuted in the name of blasphemy".

Irish Independent

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