Ireland to vote on blasphemy ban

By Carly Laird

Ireland's justice minister has announced there will be a referendum on whether to maintain the country's controversial law against blasphemy, MiNDFOOD reports.

The law, intended to prevent people from abusing or insulting any faith, has outraged civil libertarians and atheists since it was passed by parliament in July last year and was introduced in January.

The legislation defines blasphemy 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.

The Irish government said the law was necessary because the 1936 constitution only protected Christians.

Reverend James Haire, a professor of theology with Charles Sturt University, says it was argued the law needed to be expanded to include a growing population of immigrants with diverse religions.

“Ireland has had a very considerable migration of people of non-Christian faith since days of the Irish Celtic tiger, the economic boom, especially people from Eastern Europe and from Asia and Africa,” he said.

“That and also the decline of the influence of the Catholic Church in the Republic of Ireland … has led to an idea that these should be introduced.”

But when the ban came into force in January, secular campaigners immediately challenged it by publishing anti-religious quotes.

No-one has yet taken action against them using the new laws, and the government has now decided to hold a referendum on whether to scrap them altogether.

Terry O’Gorman, the president of the Australian Civil Liberties Council, says he can understand the outrage.

“They represent an unacceptable infringement of free speech,” he said.

Mr O’Gorman says he is also concerned about a proposal for a global blasphemy ban that was put to the United Nations last year.

“The UN has absolutely no business trying to restrict the expression of ideas and that’s what those who want blasphemy laws are all about,” he said.

“They want to restrict criticism, even offensive criticism, of either the head of their religion or of certain aspects of their religion.”

Some religious groups are also not keen to see such a law introduced in Australia or at the UN.

Jeremy Jones, with the Australia Israel Jewish Affairs Council, says he thinks blasphemy laws are too complex and difficult to get right.

“Often with blasphemy laws it’s not about people who are being protected it’s about a belief system,” he said.

Lyle Shelton, from the Australian Christian lobby, says blasphemy and anti-vilification laws are unnecessary and unhelpful.

“I don’t think there’s any need for it in Australia,” he said.

“We already do have these anti-vilification laws in several states, including Victoria. Where it’s been tested, it’s just made a farce of the law and I don’t think Australians want to see that repeated.

“I think we do want to live in a tolerant society [but] there’s going to be criticism of religions from time to time.

“Christianity was vilified significantly last week by the atheist conventions. That’s fine. That’s their right in a free society. I don’t think we should be taking them to court for it.”

Victoria’s Racial and Religious Tolerance Act was passed in 2002 and has also been criticised as being too restrictive on the freedom of speech.

But Dr Helen Szoke, the commissioner for the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, says the laws value cultural diversity and encourage racial and religious tolerance.

“If your listeners think about what it would be like to have someone actually in a public space basically saying you people deserve to die, your faith group is completely off the mark,” she said.

“[Saying] I’m going to actively seek to wipe you from the Earth, it’s that kind of severity that we’re talking about when we talk about vilification.

“It’s ridiculous to suggest that we as a society should have a right protected to actually incite hatred against another group.”

The Irish referendum on the blasphemy laws will be held towards the end of the year.

2008 Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All Rights Reserved.


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