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Ireland: The island of saints and blasphemers?

January 6, 2010 | 10:39 am

The Republic of Ireland is being ridiculed, and rightly so, for enacting a law that punishes blasphemy with  fines of up to $35,000. As my Irish mother would put it, "Mother of God! They might as well outlaw alcoholism."

The defense for this retro legislation is that some effect must be given to this language in Ireland's Constitution: "The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent material is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law." An article in The New York Times counsels against smugness on the part of Americans, noting that "six American states -- Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Wyoming -- still have laws against blasphemy on the books, although they are only occasionally enforced in the 21st century." (Pennsylvania also has a law against "desecrating a venerated object," which means no tearing of Terrible Towels.)

It's easy to trash the Irish for this silly law, but taboos against blasphemy have had something of a comeback lately. In Britain, some multiculturalists argued that instead of abolishing blasphemy laws Parliament should enlarge them to encompass slander against the prophet Muhammad. In a similar vein, Britain's Labor government coupled its anti-terrorism measures with a sop to Muslims, a proposal to outlaw "insulting words or behavior" aimed at religion. The House of Lords changed "insulting" to "threatening," and added this disclaimer:

Nothing in this [bill] shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of adherents, or proselytizing or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practicing their religion or belief system.

I'm loath to suggest that Ireland look to London for guidance, but God knows the Lords are right.

-- Michael McGough

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