DUBLIN - The Irish government plans to bring into force a new law in October that critics say is a return to medieval justice.
The legislation, aimed at providing judges with clear direction on the 1937 Constitution's blasphemy prohibition, imposes a fine of up to 25,000 euros - about $39,000 - for anyone who "publishes or utters matter that is (intentionally meant to be) 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."
Police with a search warrant will be able to enter private premises and use "reasonable force" to obtain incriminating evidence.
The initiative has stunned some Irish and international commentators who say it contradicts Ireland's recent emergence as a more multicultural, tech-savvy country that has in recent years showed its independence from the Roman Catholic church by liberalizing its divorce law.
"It is a wretched, backward, uncivilized regression to the Middle Ages," said prominent atheist author Richard Dawkins in a statement last month, arguing that the law risks shattering Ireland's new image as a "modern, civilized . . . green and pleasant silicon valley."
One Canadian publication lightheartedly warned lawyers attending the Canadian Bar Association's annual conference in Dublin this month to watch their language as they head out to one of the countless pubs in Ireland's capital.
A blog in the New York Times, meanwhile, featured in its coverage a YouTube link to a famous blasphemy scene from the Monty Python comedy classic Life of Brian. (Click here to see video.)
While some have noted that even countries like Canada still have their own blasphemy laws still on the books, the prohibition in western countries is typically considered obsolete.
Canada's last prosecution was in 1935, and the statute is now trumped by free speech provisions in the Charter of Rights.
"You're not introducing new blasphemy laws in the 21st century," Michael Nugent, chairman of the group Atheist Ireland, told Canwest News Service.
"There are a lot of countries that have blasphemy laws but typically they aren't enforced. The United Kingdom abolished theirs last year. These are hangovers from earlier times and certainly in most western countries are anachronisms. Introducing a new blasphemy law seems irresponsible to us."
While Ahern has said the likelihood of a blasphemy prosecution is minimal, Nugent said the law as written creates an incentive for groups to show the kind of widespread "outrage" required to justify a prosecution. Peter O'Neil © Copyright (c) Canwest News Service