The law of the land

Comhall Fanning investigates the influence of religion on the morality behind law across the globe.

The functions of the law are to keep peace, shape moral standards, promote social justice, resolve disputes and protect the liberties and rights of a country’s citizens. But how do we decide the moral values that underpin these rules? Religion can provide, and has provided, lawmakers with a handy, pre-existing morality on which to base laws.

This may have worked in the past. In Ireland, laws informed  by church dogma  suited what was a homogenous, staunchly Roman Catholic country. However, last year’s census showed that the number of people who identify as Roman Catholic in Ireland has dropped to 78% and almost one in ten now consider themselves as having no religion at all. Indeed, the percentage of Catholics who practice their religion may be much lower.

As the prevalence of religion declines across the West and our societies become more multicultural, laws influenced by religion become increasingly problematic. Religious laws fail to protect the rights of citizens by infringing upon the rights of those who are non-religious or who practice a minority religion.

The influence of religion on states’ laws varies considerably even in Europe. From expressing our thoughts to our sexuality, how much say should a government have and how has religion influence this question?

Freedom of Expression

Freedom of expression and blasphemy laws have often created  difficulties for states. Some reformers argue for an approach like America of guaranteeing free speech even where it offends religious sensibilities; while others for broader blasphemy laws that would protect people from potential abuse of any religion.

Denmark has recently repealed its blasphemy law from 1683. Bruno Jerup, a Danish MP who supported the repeal, argued“religion should not dictate what is allowed and what is forbidden to say publicly”. The Danish blasphemy law came to widespread attention in February this year when the state prosecutor sought to bring charges against a man who burned the Koran. A number of EU states still have blasphemy laws, although few prosecutions have been made under these laws in recent decades.

Article 40.6.1.i of the Irish Constitution requires that blasphemy be a criminal offence. However, no  one has been prosecuted for blasphemy in Ireland since 1855. It is argued that 2009 Defamation Act makes the offence of blasphemy virtually toothless as it stipulates that a substantial number of adherents to a religion must be outraged by blasphemous remarks. This was the reason that no charges were brought against Stephen Fry following his appearance on RTÉ’s The Meaning of Life as Gardaí could not find a substantial number of outraged people.

France, with its strong commitment to secularism, has no such law against blasphemy but this too can create difficult situations. Many Muslims felt deeply offended by the portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed in French publications. The Irish National Union of Journalists stated in 2016 that the cartoons produced by Charlie Hebdo would have been in breach of Irish blasphemy laws. The issue of blasphemy is a complex one and raises questions when of when speech might be slanderous or racist.


One of the deepest sources of conflict between law and religion throughout the world has been the right to terminate a pregnancy. The Roman Catholic Church maintains that all life must be protected from the moment of conception, and as a result, historically Catholic countries often have restrictive abortion laws.

Abortion for any reason during the first trimester has been legal in Denmark since 1973. While 71% of Danes consider themselves to be Christian and there is an established Lutheran Church, fewer than one in five Danes consider religion to be an important factor in their daily lives.

In Poland,  where 92% of the population are Catholic, abortion is severely restricted. It is legal only in cases of rape, incest, a threat to the life of the mother and when the foetus is fatally damaged. As recently as last year, a bill was proposed in Poland to place a blanket ban on abortion. MPs of Poland’s ruling right-wing, christian party, Law and Justice, were given a free vote on the issue. Initially, most the party’s MPs supported the bill but following significant protests, the bill was not passed.

Tales online of Polish women forced  to travel to Germany mirror the suffering of Irish women travelling to England for abortion . It is clear that many Polish MPs are still using religion to guide their conscience when legislating. This likely reflects the views of many Poles, as a 2015 survey showed 52% of Poles did not support any form of registered partnership for same-sex couples.

Malta’s constitution establishes Roman Catholicism as the state religion and this is reflected in many of its laws. The constitution also tasks the authorities of the Church with a duty to teach right from wrong. As of last year, 88.6% in Malta considered themselves to be Catholic. Maltese women who have had abortions abroad generally will not even speak openly to the press about their experience. The two main political parties support the full ban on abortion, as do 60% of Maltese voters. The pro-choice movement is extremely covert and doctors will not speak openly on their views on abortion. The morning-after pill is also illegal in Malta. Malta only permitted divorce in 2011, making it the last European country to do so.

Paradoxically, LGBT rights in Malta are long established. It was the first European country to ban gay conversion therapy and has guaranteed rights to LGBT people on a constitutional level. It has also granted homosexual couples rights equivalent to marriage and allows homosexual couples to adopt. Ireland might be seen to be in a similar position. Both are traditionally Catholic countries that began to shake off the shackles of the past but church teaching is still reflected in some laws, even while others have been changed.

Sexual Liberty

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has recently come to prominence internationally following  their confidence and supply agreement with the Conservative government in Westminster. The DUP has its roots in the fundamentalist Free Presbyterians and the party has actively campaigned to keep Northern Ireland’s laws in line with a conservative, christian morality.

The party, along with others in the North, has made Northern Ireland an anomaly in the UK and the British Isles as the only part of either which does not allow same-sex marriage. The DUP, like many of the other Northern Irish parties, aims to ensure that Northern Ireland maintains its restrictive abortion laws. In January 2016, the DUP’s leader,  Arlene Foster, was said the DUP would not shift from its “Christian values” when it came to abortion and gay marriage. The DUP also ran a campaign in the 1970s and 1980s entitled “Save Ulster from Sodomy”. The fundamental argument of the campaign was that, according to the Bible, homosexuality is a sin and that, therefore, sodomy should not be legally allowed in a “Christian state”.

The Roman Catholic Church continues to ban contraception, although it does allow natural family planning. This has a huge influence on the laws of many Catholic-majority states. In Nigeria, despite the fact that condoms are legal, in some states campaigns to encourage condom usage are illegal. This means that only 52% of those residents engaged in sexual activities classed as “high-risk” use condoms. In the Philippines, the Roman Catholic Church has been running campaigns against condom usage. They are opposed to government efforts to reduce the HIV rate through encouraging condom usage. The church argues that a change in lifestyle is what is required, not condom usage.

It is estimated that homosexual relationships remain illegal in 74 countries and, in 10 of these, punishable by death: Yemen, Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria (in some states), Qatar (law applies to Muslims only), Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, United Arab Emirates and Sudan. These laws are based upon Islam’s religious law, sharia, and show extreme interpretation of religious texts by states can destroy basic human rights.

Ireland stands at a crossroads; the influence of the Roman Catholic Church is in decline. 20 years ago, we were a country deeply divided by the issues of divorce and contraception, and yet only 2 years ago, the passing of the marriage referendum highlighted the rapid change we’re experiencing.  We now need to ask ourselves whether we want to follow the progressive option and separate the influence of church from state. Despite the rapidly declining number of practicing Catholics in Ireland, the government has been slow to catch up with this demographic change. Religiously influenced laws in Ireland, and many other countries, continue to infringe on the civil liberties of many.

What is extremely important to remember when it comes to repealing religious laws is that you are not giving rights to some people and taking them away from others. You’re ensuring that everyone has the same rights. This does not infringe on anyone’s religious freedom. This does present us with new challenges in finding moral conventions for running our society, but we’re ready.

Comhall Fanning

Comhall Fanning is a Deputy Features Editor for Trinity News, and a Senior Sophister German and Sociology student.