Those Goddamn Blasphemy Laws

On October 26, The Republic of Ireland voted to remove an arcane law in the Constitution outlawing blasphemy. Specifically, they removed a section of Article 40.6.1, which ironically guarantees “the right of the citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions,” and then a few sentences later states, “The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.” The blasphemy law had not been invoked or used in any conviction in the last 150 years, but that did not keep it from being relevant in this millennium. In 2009, a law was passed entitled the Defamation Act of 2009. (Originally in Irish, but luckily I found a translation.) Section 36 of that law reads, “A person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €25,000.” The section then goes on to clarify what is considered “blasphemy.” This referendum will amend both the constitution and the 2009 law.

Atheist groups have been trying to get the law appealed since 2009, however because it was a part of the constitution, it required a referendum, or vote. But for many political reasons over the last almost-decade, the referendum was postponed until now. It passed with a 65% “yes” vote. Part of the reason the referendum finally occurred is an interview with Stephen Fry for an Irish program called The Meaning of Life with Gay Burne in which Fry called God an “evil, capricious, monstrous maniac.” He was accused of violating Ireland’s blasphemy laws and Irish police opened an investigation, but ultimately dropped it. The aftermath led to 14 churches, including the Catholic Church, supporting the removal of the clause and calling it “largely obsolete.”

This referendum made me interested in whether blasphemy laws still exist in The United States, even with the presence of the First Amendment. The answer is yes, and not just in one state. Michigan, South Carolina, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts have laws that make reference to blasphemy. Yes, that is right – blasphemy is illegal in Massachusetts. The last conviction under this law happened in 1928. Charles Lee Smith operated a bookstore in which he gave out free Atheist literature. In his window he put up a sign that read, “Evolution Is True. The Bible’s a Lie. God’s a Ghost,” and under Little Rock, Arkansas’ city ordinances, he was convicted of blasphemy. He was fined $25 and served a 26-day jail sentence in which he fasted, gaining a large amount of media attention. Once released he resumed his Atheist activities and was convicted again, but when he was released on bail he appealed the charges. The case went on for several years before being convicted.

That may have been 90 years ago, but just 41 years ago, a blasphemy law was passed in Pennsylvania. A man named George Kalman tried to register a production company under I.C.H. productions, standing for “I Choose Hell.” Shortly after, he received a letter from the Department of State that said that corporation names could not contain “words that constitute blasphemy, profane cursing or swearing or that profane the Lord’s name.” He contacted the ACLU and fought the law, and it was repealed in July of 2010 after being found unconstitutional.

My rabbit hole-esque research into blasphemy law – both in the United States and abroad – seemed to create more questions than it answered. How could a law that directly violates freedom of speech, and therefore the constitution, be passed? When a federal law or statute is passed/ratified, i.e. the First Amendment, why would conflicting laws not automatically be repealed? Michigan, Wyoming, and Oklahoma all became states after the First Amendment, so how did blasphemy laws come into their constitution? What was the process of becoming a state? What other archaic laws are still on the books? (Note – adultery is illegal in Massachusetts!)

This was the spiral that I found myself down at 3 a.m. Sunday morning, and my research since then just seems to lead me further down the rabbit hole. The good new is, at least in the United States, that history seems to show that any actual move to uphold a blasphemy law would be denied due to the First Amendment. But I swear to God, it would be cool to see someone try.

3 thoughts on “Those Goddamn Blasphemy Laws

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  1. This is super interesting! I wonder if these blasphemy laws have ever been used to convict anti-Semitic or Islamophobic rhetoric, or whether it’s mainly been applied to language that goes against Christianity. The existence of these laws really highlights the way in which the separation of church and state (or lack thereof) can function in our country. Great post!

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    1. I know that most (if not all) of the laws that were written in Ireland and in the United States were based in Christianity. However, looking worldwide, blasphemy laws are still largely used in many countries, and in some places punishment can include death. In some Middle Eastern and African countries, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt and other places where Sharia law is followed, this is the case. Israel also has blasphemy laws, so those would apply to Judaism, but given that Israel is a holy site for all three major religions it would also apply to the other two. I think a worldwide lens at blasphemy law – and free speech rights – would be really interesting and probably make me (or maybe us) appreciate what we have here in a much more active way.

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