Thursday 20 June 2019

Explainer: 10 things you need to know about the blasphemy referendum

(Stock photo)
(Stock photo)
Denise Calnan

Denise Calnan

What is the referendum about and what are we voting for?

Here is everything you need to know about the upcoming blasphemy referendum.

What is the definition of blasphemy?

Blasphemy is "the action or offence of speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things".

What are we actually voting for?

The Irish Constitution says that publishing or saying something blasphemous is an offence punishable under law. Blasphemy is currently a criminal offence and, if convicted of this offence, a person may be fined up to €25,000.

The upcoming referendum will decide if the Constitution should continue to say that publishing or saying something blasphemous is a criminal offence or, if the referendum is passed, the Oireachtas will be able to change the law so that blasphemy is no longer a criminal offence.

The proposal is to remove the word 'blasphemy'. If you vote YES, blasphemy will no longer be a criminal offence. If you vote NO, the Constitution will remain unchanged.

What does the Constitution say?

Article 40.6.1˚ of the Constitution says: "The State guarantees liberty for the exercise of the following rights, subject to public order and morality:

"The right of the citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions. The education of public opinion being, however, a matter of such grave import to the common good, the State shall endeavour to ensure that organs of public opinion, such as the radio, the press, the cinema, while preserving their rightful liberty of expression, including criticism of Government policy, shall not be used to undermine public order or morality or the authority of the State.

"The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law."

The proposal in the referendum is to remove 'blasphemous' from the above text.

What does article actually this mean?

The Constitution currently says that citizens have the right to freely express their convictions and opinions, but there are certain restrictions on this right. For example, the Constitution says that the publication or utterance of something blasphemous must be a criminal offence.

The Constitution does not itself define blasphemy. The legal definition of blasphemy is contained in the Defamation Act 2009.

.... and what does that say?

The Constitution mandates that blasphemy be an offence and the 2009 Defamation Act legislation was enacted to give it a clear definition in law.

That Act says that a person publishes or utters something blasphemous if they;

"Publish or say something that is 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, and intend to cause that outrage."

It is a defence if the accused can prove that a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific or academic value in what they published or said.

What is the punishment for blasphemy offences?

If convicted of this offence, a person may be fined up to €25,000. There is no prison sentence for this offence.

Has anyone ever been prosecuted?

No one has ever been prosecuted in Ireland.

When did we first hear that we would have a referendum on the issue?

Former Taoiseach Enda Kenny signalled in early 2017 that there would be a referendum on the issue.

Do any other countries have a blasphemy law? How does Ireland compare?

Out of all the countries in the world that have a blasphemy law, Ireland's is the least restrictive.

Ireland had the lowest score out of 71 countries in a 2017 US Commission on International Religious Freedoms report analysing the extent to which such laws are in conflict with international human rights laws. At the other end of the scale were Iran and Pakistan, which can both impose the death penalty for blasphemy offences.

The report found Ireland was among three countries whose laws allow for fines for the offence of blasphemy. The others are Spain and Switzerland.

Ireland's blasphemy law has probably had more effect internationally than here in Ireland. Our blasphemy law has been quoted directly by countries such as Pakistan at the United Nations in making the case for the prohibiting of 'defamation of religion'.

The most common punishment internationally among blasphemy laws is imprisonment, with 86pc of all states imposing a prison penalty, while a few countries have lashings and the death penalty.

... finally, what was the story about Stephen Fry and blasphemy?

Blasphemy laws here came under the international spotlight in May 2017 when gardaí launched an investigation into comments made by comedian and actor Stephen Fry.

The probe was abandoned after gardaí failed to find a large group of people outraged by Mr Fry's comments on an RTÉ show in which he questioned the existence of God in a world where there is so much misery.

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