Voters in Ireland will take part in a referendum next Friday (26 October) to decide whether to abolish the country’s blasphemy laws. The Republic of Ireland’s constitution requires blasphemy – applicable only to Christianity – to be outlawed. But in 1999 its common-law offence was ruled to be incompatible with the constitution’s requirement for religious equality. A new statutory offence protecting any religion against “publication or utterance of blasphemous matter” was introduced in 2006; but now the public will decide whether to abolish the blasphemy law completely.
The last prosecution for blasphemy in Ireland was in 1855, but last year the comedian Stephen Fry was investigated for blasphemy after remarks he made during an RTE television interview with broadcaster Gay Byrne, questioning the existence of God in “a world which is so full of injustice and pain”.
Ahead of next Friday’s referendum, the Church of Ireland’s Church and Society Commission has issued a statement saying it would have preferred an option on the ballot to replace the blasphemy provisions of the constitution with ones that would protect freedom of religion and freedom of speech, as set out in the European Convention on Human Rights Articles.
“We acknowledge that the current reference to blasphemy in the Constitution of Ireland is largely obsolete”, the Chair of the Commission, Bishop Kenneth Kearon of Limerick and Killaloe, a former Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, said. “We recognise that there is grave concern at the way blasphemy laws have been used to justify violence and oppression against minorities in other parts of the world.
“There is a fundamental human right to freedom of religion, but also the freedom of expression (within limits). However, the human right of faith communities to contribute to public life, including public debate on issues that are of importance to everyone, without being subjected to attack or ridicule, must be acknowledged and respected.
“Religious and other minorities, in particular, have a right to expect that they will not be gratuitously offended or humiliated. We remind citizens that some religions and cultures may have different sensitivities for what they find offensive, and this should be, as far as possible, respected.
“The psychological impact of hate speech on isolated communities, particularly online abuse, should not be underestimated.”
He added: “We cannot reflect on these questions without expressing our solidarity with all those, throughout the world, who are experiencing persecution, and human rights abuses, because of their faith or beliefs. We urge the Government of Ireland to make our country a leading example of protection for freedom of religion, freedom of conscience and the human rights of minorities.”