The Irish Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Dermot Ahern [official profile], on Sunday proposed [Atheist Ireland press release] holding a referendum later this year to remove the criminal offense of blasphemy from the Irish Constitution [text, PDF]. Blasphemy is a punishable offense under section 40 of the constitution, but the language of the text had been deemed too vague to hold any prosecutions. Ireland’s Defamation Act of 2009 [text], which went into effect in January, redefined blasphemy as publishing or uttering “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” and imposed a penalty of a fine of up to 25,000 euros for those convicted. The Irish public has been very critical [Irish Times report] of the controversial law. Earlier this year, advocacy group Atheist Ireland [advocacy website] publicly challenged the law on their website by posting 25 potentially blasphemous statements [text] from both religious and public figures. The group praised Ahern’s proposed referendum:
We reiterate our position that this law is both silly and dangerous: silly because it is introducing medieval canon law offence into a modern plularist republic; and dangerous because it incentives religious outrage and because its wording has already been adopted by Islamic States as part of their campaign to make blasphemy a crime internationally.
Ahern has stated that he only saw the Defamation Act as a short-term solution and that he was under his constitutional duty in reforming the old blasphemy law.
Blasphemy laws have been a controversial issue in several countries. Last month, a Pakistani government official told the Agence France-Presse that the country would begin to revise its blasphemy laws [JURIST report] later this year. Pakistan currently punishes blasphemy against Islam by death, but no one has yet been executed for the offense. Last year, the death sentence of Afghan journalism student Sayad Parwaz Kambaksh [JURIST news archive] for blasphemy was reduced [JURIST report] to 20 years’ imprisonment by an Afghan appeals court. Kambaksh was sentenced to death [JURIST report] for distributing papers questioning gender roles under Islam. In 2008, the UK House of Lords voted to abolish [JURIST report] the criminal offenses of blasphemy and blasphemous libel from the UK common law.