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The act of insulting or speaking sacrilegiously about God or other sacred things is defined as blasphemy. Voters in Ireland will be asked whether they want to remove the word blasphemy from a clause in the 1937 constitution that says: “The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”
According to a 2017 report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, the organization found seventy-one countries that have laws which criminalized views deemed to be blasphemous across all religions. Of course, blasphemy laws are most common in Muslim-majority countries but there are also blasphemy laws in Poland, Italy, and Ireland.
Earlier this month, the Irish Catholic church said the blasphemy provision was “largely obsolete” and such laws were used “to justify violence and oppression against minorities in other parts of the world.” They also added that the right of people to practice their faith without being attacked or ridiculed “needs to be acknowledged and respected.”
Amnesty and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties this week issued a joint appeal for a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum. Liam Herrick, ICCL’s director said, “Freedom of expression is at the heart of our democracy and that must include allowing all speech that challenges or even ridicules ideas or institutions. Criminalizing blasphemy has no place in a modern democracy such as ours. Irish people don’t want criminal prosecution for those who call into question the authority of religious teachings.”
The last prosecution for blasphemy in Ireland was in 1855, but three years ago Irish police investigated comments made by Stephen Fry on television in which the comedian described God as “capricious,” “mean-minded” and an “utter maniac.” The investigation was later dropped after Gardaí decided that there was a lack of outrage, the Guardian reports.
A poll conducted for the Irish Times found that 51% of respondents said they would vote in favor of removing the offence of blasphemy, 19% said they would vote to retain it, 25% were undecided and four percent said they would not vote.
Recently, various blasphemy cases from around the world have drawn international attention. There was global backlash from Muslims in 2005 over the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad as a cartoon in a Danish newspaper. This brought the clash between freedom of speech and freedom of religion to the fore of international debate. Then this ‘clash’ reared its head again — with devastating consequences — when the staff of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was murdered in Paris in 2015 by Islamic extremists.
In Denmark in 2017, a man who posted a video of himself burning the Quran on Facebook avoided trial when politicians abolished a centuries-old blasphemy law.
Abandoning blasphemy laws is a logical continuation of the development of secular states as well as the definitive separation of the State and the Church.