Ireland’s presidential election is today, but importantly also on the ballot is the blasphemy referendum. Currently in Ireland, blasphemy is a crime, a leftover law from the days when the Irish government was heavily influenced by the Catholic Church.
However, the law was updated in 2009 to say that it is illegal to publish or say something "grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion.”
The last time the law was invoked was in 2015, when Stephen Fry made comments on an RTÉ (Ireland's national broadcaster) show about what he would say to God to make a point about the ridiculousness of this archaic law. An offended viewer in County Clare reported the statement to the police claiming it was his “civic duty,” not because he was offended. They conducted an investigation but failed to find enough people who were offended by the remarks, so the case was dropped. If Fry was convicted, he could have been fined up to €25,000.
The Stephen Fry situation set a dangerous precedent that if someone is offended by a remark or criticism of their faith, they can report it to the police and have it be taken seriously, contrary to popular belief that the law is never enforced. The case goes to court if there are enough people complaining about a blasphemous statement. It begs the question: how many is enough?
Even then, it is rare that anyone bothers reporting such “grossly abusive or insulting” opinions. One of the most popular Irish shows is Father Ted, a show that pokes fun at priests. RTÉ show The Savage Eye had an episode poking fun at the Catholic Church as an institution.
If this episode aired in the U.S., a country with no blasphemy law, there would be outrage. If there was a blasphemy law in the U.S., the network could lose their FCC license. Thankfully, because of the first amendment, those kinds of laws would be unconstitutional.
At root, this is a pointless law that doesn’t reflect modern Irish values. It goes against the value and human right of freedom of speech and gives religion a special status, sheltering it from criticism. Religion is a set of ideas and ideas should not be immune from criticism.
If criticizing religion hurts the feelings of the religious, does this mean hurting people’s feelings in general should be a crime? After all, why should the religious have exclusive rights to legally punish offensive speech? Most people would say no. Imagine if fines were issued every time feelings were hurt. Sounds like an episode of South Park. How is this enforced? How do you determine severity? It’s all subjective and arbitrary.
Blasphemy laws are associated with countries where religion and government go hand in hand, but they can be found in other parts of what people call “the west.” Scotland and Northern Ireland have not repealed their blasphemy laws, even though they haven’t been enforced for a long time. Elsewhere in Europe, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, Russia, Spain, and Switzerland have blasphemy laws with varying punishments from fines to prison time. The Irish Independent notes that Ireland’s blasphemy law is the least restrictive, but has been used by Pakistan to justify the prohibition of defamation of religion.
While repealing the rarely enforced blasphemy law seems minor, it is a symbolic move that cuts off the last vestiges of Ireland’s past as a Catholic-controlled country.