After drawings of the Islamic prophet Muhammad led to killings at French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, a major European nation is facing renewed claims for an end to its own ban on blasphemy.
One article published by the Irish Times newspaper, titled "Why a referendum on blasphemy is long overdue," specifically cites the words of Charlie Hebdo editor Stéphane Charbonnier (a.k.a. “Charb”) as justification for an end to Ireland's blasphemy laws. "Let's repeal our blasphemy law if we really want to honor 'Charlie,' " read a separate op-ed in the Irish Independent.
Meanwhile, an online poll conducted in response to the Paris attacks by news Web site TheJournal.ie found 64 percent in favor of scrapping the laws as quickly as possible.
The traditionally Catholic nation has a complicated legal history with blasphemy. The act of insulting religion is required to be prohibited by Article 40.6.1.i of the Irish constitution, yet in 1999, Ireland's Supreme Court -- when considering the case of a newspaper that had published a cartoon mocking the church -- found that there was no legal definition of blasphemy for it to look to.
In 2009, a new defamation law was adopted that included a definition of blasphemy and said it could be punished with a fine of up to 25,000 euros (almost $30,000). Blasphemy was hence defined as “publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion, with some defenses permitted."
The new law and definition had been criticized by atheists and free speech advocates before they even went into force. Shortly before it passed, Michael Nugent, chairman of Atheist Ireland, argued that it "incentivizes outrage," while Eoin O'Dell, a senior lecturer in law at Trinity College Dublin, later told The Post that it was "literally medieval."
"Under this proposed law," Nugent wrote in 2009, "if a person expresses one belief about gods, and other people think that this insults a different belief about gods, then these people can become outraged, and this outrage can make it illegal for the first person to express his or her beliefs."
As blasphemy is prohibited by Ireland's constitution, Irish lawmakers can only end the ban on it by referendum (a feature of the constitution known as the Bunreacht na hÉireann in Irish). After years of calls for a vote, the Fine Gael-Labor coalition government announced that a referendum would be held in 2015, yet campaigners have complained about the slow pace. Polls conducted in 2014 showed around half the electorate supports abolishing the law, with less than a fifth saying they supported it.
While the practice is more common in the Middle East, Ireland is one of a small number of European nations that has a blasphemy law on the books (Germany and Denmark are two others), and as in those countries the law is not enforced anymore -- the last known case in Ireland was in 1855. However, critics say these laws -- in particular new ones like Ireland's -- embolden other nations with restrictive laws on religion.