THE narrowly avoided prosecution of the celebrity Stephen Fry under Ireland’s constitutional rule against blasphemy for negative remarks that he made about God on the Irish State broadcaster, RTÉ, last year, is largely responsible for a referendum on whether to remove the article from the Constitution altogether.
The Constitution defines blasphemy as offensive comments or matter designed to offend any religious community: anything said or done deemed “gross abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage against a substantial number of the adherents of that religion” .
Under the 1961 Defamation Act, a person could be fined and/or jailed for up to seven years for the crime of blasphemous libel, making blasphemy punishable by law.
Several governments have been advised to reform the law, and it was decided to do so by referendum on the same date that the Irish electorate vote for a new President: 26 October.
The organisation Atheism Ireland, together with many Christian organisations, has campaigned for the removal of the law. The organisation states: “Regardless of the detail, it is wrong in principle for a modern democratic republic to have any type of blasphemy law.
“Theological thought-crimes belong in the past. Religious and nonreligious people alike should be protected from harm and incitement to harm, but religious and nonreligious ideas alike should be open to any criticism. That is how human knowledge progresses. Blasphemy laws discriminate against nonreligious citizens, by protecting the fundamental beliefs of religious citizens only.”