Churches not consulted about blasphemy law proposal


THE MAIN churches were not consulted about the proposal to define the offence of blasphemous libel in the Defamation Act, The Irish Timeshas learned.

Spokesmen for the Catholic bishops, the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin and for the imam of the Islamic mosque in Clonskeagh said that the proposal had not been discussed with them. They said they needed to consider it before commenting further.

Meanwhile, Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern said he had a constitutional obligation to fill the gap in the law on blasphemous libel left by the Corway case.

In an article published in today’s Irish Timesthe Minister writes that successive attorneys general have advised the various ministers for justice that article 40.6.1.i of the Constitution imposes an obligation to implement the constitutional offence of blasphemy. The article states that the publication of blasphemous matter is an offence punishable “in accordance with law”.

“Those who argue that where the Constitution has ordained an offence, that a minister should simply ignore it to suit his ideological positions, seem to me to be arguing for a clear constitutional provision to be wilfully ignored. This would be to undermine the Constitution and its protection,” he writes.

He writes that, following the 1999 Corway case, which found that it was impossible to say in what the offence of blasphemy consisted, there was a legal obligation to ensure that this article of the Constitution was operable.

He stresses that the proposed legislation would have to be construed in the context of freedom of expression, and no innocent conduct would be captured, especially as intent to cause outrage would have to be proved.

Asked to comment on the definition contained in the proposed amendment, Martin Long of the Catholic Communications Office said that the bishops had not been consulted about it, and needed to study it. He added that non-legal mechanisms like the codes of practice of the Broadcasting Complaints Authority, the Advertising Standards Authority and the Press Ombudsman had been used by the communications office to raise issues that caused offence.

A spokesman for Archbishop John Neill of Dublin also said that the proposal had come as a surprise, and that the church would have to study it.

Ali Selim, spokesman for the imam of the mosque in the Islamic Cultural Centre in Clonskeagh, said that they would welcome any policy or law to maintain or strengthen respect for religion or faith, but they were not aware of these specific proposals.

Meanwhile, it has emerged that the Holy See, at a United Nations meeting in Geneva, pledged its support for the international Covenant on Civil, Cultural and Political Rights as the best protection for religious freedom, as an alternative to prohibiting the “defamation of religions”.

At a meeting of the Human Rights Council on All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination last September, Msgr Silvano Marie Tomasi, the Holy See’s permanent observer at the UN, said: “This delegation . . . fully supports the reaffirmation, by the Human Rights Council, of the right to freedom of religion, conscience, belief and religious practice . . . It concurs also with the advice of the special rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, offered to this council, to refocus its reflection away from the vague sociological concept of ‘defamation of religions’ to the juridical norm of non-incitement to national, racial or religious hatred, and to the rights well summed up in the International Covenant on Civil, Cultural and Political Rights.”