Blasphemy: From being burned at the stake in 1328 to a €25,000 fine in 2017

John A Sinnott Solicitors, criminal law

Following an interview with Stephen Fry on Gay Byrne’s ‘The Meaning of Life’, a member of the public believed Fry’s comments were illegal and contrary to the Defamation Act 2009.  The person said they were “doing their civic duty” and had written to Garda Commissioner Noirín O’Sullivan over the comments.  Gardaí considered the statement and decided not to proceed with the investigation.  None-the-less, the complaint sparked much media attention and debate over the relevance of our blasphemy laws in modern society.

This recent article in The Irish Examiner tells us all. . .

Q. What is blasphemy?
A. It is the public utterance or expression of contempt, hostility or irreverence towards religious deities or beliefs.  It involves an attack on the divine and not just on believers.

Q. What are blasphemy laws?
A. They are criminal laws that prohibit or limit the vilification of religion.

Q. What countries have laws criminalising blasphemy?
A. There are dozens of countries that have laws against blasphemy. They are most common in the Middle East or north Africa but are also in force in southern Asia, including India, Pakistan, Malasia and Indonesia.

A Pew Research Centre study carried out in 2014 found that 26% of the world’s countries and territories had anti-blasphemy laws or policies. The legal punishments for such transgressions vary from fines to death.

Blasphemy laws that target an identifiable section of the community with severe penalties that may include imprisonment or death are considered genocide or crimes against humanity. Those who enact or enforce such laws are liable to prosecution in the International Criminal Court.

Q. What about in the West?
A. Some western democracies still retain blasphemy laws but they are no longer enforced. For example, in 1952 the US Supreme Court held that a prosecution for blasphemy would violate the Constitution. However, some states still retain such laws on their statute books.

Q. What is the history of the crime of blasphemy in Ireland?
A. While blasphemy is required to be prohibited by Article 40.6.1.i. of the 1937 Constitution, the law against it goes back much further and is derived from the English Common Law.

In 1328, Irishman Adam Duff O’Toole was burned at the stake in Dublin for heresy and blasphemy.

In the 17th century, the law against blasphemy was, in large measure, to protect the Anglican religion which, as the established church, was part of the law of the land in Ireland as well as Great Britain.

Therefore, blasphemy was a form of treason.

It did not apply to other religions. It was widely believed that this had changed by the early 20th century but in 1991, in a case involving Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, the English High Court held that blasphemy laws still only applied to the established church.

Q. What is the current position in Ireland?
A. Ireland is the only western democracy to have introduced a blasphemy law in the 21st century.

The law, introduced in January 2010, carries a maximum fine of €25,000. It came about as a result of a landmark case in 1999, Independent Newspapers v Corway, over a cartoon published in the Sunday Independent.

The Supreme Court took the view that, in the absence of legislation, the constitutional offence of blasphemy was unenforceable.

Q. What is the position in other European countries?
A. In February last, a German atheist ran afoul of his country’s blasphemy laws after he was fined €500 for driving around with anti-Christian slogans on his car.

Blasphemy was first decriminalised in France in 1881 (except for the Alsace-Moselle region, part of Germany at the time). This region was included last year.

The Swedes abolished theirs in 1970, Norway in 2015, the Netherlands in 2014, Iceland in 2015 and Malta in 2016.