Atheists challenge Irish blasphemy law

By Karla Adam
Washington Post / January 4, 2010

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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In a bid on Friday to demonstrate that the law is outdated and largely unenforceable, a group named Atheist Ireland published on its website 25 potentially blasphemous quotations from figures such as Jesus Christ, Mohammed, 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,’’ said Michael Nugent, the group’s chairman, who estimates that there are a quarter-million atheists in Ireland.

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 US Constitution’s “We the People of the United States.’’

But the close relationship between church and state in Ireland has waned in recent years, O’Dell said - 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position’’ of the Catholic Church was removed from the constitution by referendum in 1972 and the ban on divorce was repealed in 1995.