By Karla Adam
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 3, 2010; A08
LONDON -- Atheists in Ireland are risking possible prosecution with an audacious online challenge to the country's new blasphemy law.
Under the law, which went into effect Friday, a person can be found guilty of blasphemy 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."
The penalty is a fine of up to 25,000 euros, or more than $35,000.
In a bid to demonstrate that the law is outdated and largely unenforceable, a group named Atheist Ireland published on its Web site on Friday 25 potentially blasphemous quotations from figures such as Jesus Christ, Muhammad, George Carlin, Pope Benedict XVI and Mark Twain, who opined in 1909: "When the Lord God of Heaven and Earth, adored Father of Man, goes to war, there is no limit. . . . He slays, slays, slays!"
"Two days ago, there was no question over whether these quotes were legal. Now there is a question, and that is very bizarre," Michael Nugent, the group's chairman, said in an interview Saturday.
Blasphemy was already a criminal offense in Ireland under the country's 1937 constitution. But until now, the language had been too murky to make prosecutions feasible. In 1999, Ireland's Supreme Court dismissed the last case to test the law because blasphemy was not clearly defined.
By clarifying the term and imposing a hefty fine, the government has angered critics, who say the law undermines the state's increasing independence from the Catholic Church.
There was "no clamor" for a new blasphemy law, said Eoin O'Dell, a senior lecturer in law at Trinity College Dublin. "Most of the commentary in Ireland has been pretty negative," he added.
When Ireland's constitution was drafted, church and state were tightly entwined, O'Dell said, noting that the preamble begins, "In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity," in contrast to the U.S. Constitution's "We the People of the United States."
But despite the charter's "very Christian framework," O'Dell said, the close relationship between church and state in Ireland has waned in recent years -- the "special position" of the Catholic Church was removed from the constitution by referendum in 1972, and the ban on divorce was repealed in 1995.
Dermot Ahern, Ireland's justice minister, has said that he would have preferred simply to abolish the previous blasphemy law.
"My personal position is that church and state should be separate," he said in a speech in May. "But I do not have the luxury of ignoring our constitution." Faced with choosing between the pricey referendum that would be required to amend the constitution and reform that would help judges address the 1999 Supreme Court ruling, he said, "I chose reform."
Nugent, who estimates that there are a quarter-million atheists in Ireland, said the new law is "silly" and "literally medieval."
Adam is a special correspondent.