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Why I will be voting no in the referendum on blasphemy

Wednesday, 11th July, 2018 5:08pm

It seems strange to be faced with a further referendum even before the dust has settled on the most recent one.

The Government is proposing to remove the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution with a target referendum date of October. If passed, I believe it would be an example of how once again in a populist referendum, an important value is being eclipsed.

Article 40.6.1 (i) of Bunreacht na h-Eireann states that: “The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”

The prohibition of blasphemy has a deeper significance than may at first appear. It emphasises our understanding as a people that God is worthy of respect by and within society.

It is saying that direct attacks on the divine honour or on things deemed sacred by religious believers are something we wish to exclude. This would seem reasonable in a country where over 85 per cent of the population expressed themselves as being members of a religion according to the 2016 census.

Blasphemy, understood as public and manifest contempt for God or for things connected with divine worship, is the very opposite of respect. It is hard to see how such a provision in a Constitution which in its preamble acknowledges the authority of God, is a burden that now needs to be removed.

Comparison with countries where offences against religion are punished with violence, imprisonment or harsh retaliation is entirely without relevance. Ireland does not have such laws nor is there likelihood of their introduction.

Statute law, not the Constitution, regulates penalties and Section 36 of the Defamation Act 2009, taking its cue from Article 40.6.1 (i) does just that in relation to blasphemy. There is a maximum fine of €25,000 for conviction on indictment although proceedings are extremely rare.

Even if the law is seldom applied, removal of the constitutional clause would allow for laws against religious respect to be revoked entirely at any time in the future. It is also possible that legislation in this area could be constructed to target certain religious expressions or groups, a daunting prospect indeed.

It is conceivable that a law ostensibly claiming to defend religious freedom and respect could be so cast as to prevent ministers of religion from commenting adversely on public policy. Faith communities are rightly wary of any further erosion of their rights and in this context the constitutional provision on blasphemy is more relevant now, as a safeguard of a higher value, than when it was first enacted.

The Defamation Act 2009 also outlines what is considered a crime under the heading of blasphemy. It comprises publishing or uttering “matter 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 that the person “intends …to cause such outrage”.

The defences allowed in the Act are so wide (genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific or academic value of the item which is the subject of complaint) as to substantially negate the effects of the Act regarding blasphemy.

This creates the impression that the law was at most half-hearted in its objectives. The law may need to be reformed, perhaps even tightened in the light of changing circumstances but certainly not abolished.

Just as history is generally written by the winning side, so in modern Ireland many of our legislative proposals are initiated by politicians almost exclusively committed to creating a secular society.

The blasphemy referendum fits superbly in to this agenda. One wonders why so many other aspects of life have not been put to a referendum?

Arguably there are much more pressing issues than blasphemy laws or the age at which somebody can become president on which the people might be consulted.

How about putting the right of each citizen to a home in to the Constitution? That is not likely to be done anytime soon. Our leaders are extremely selective about what matters are put to the people.

We need to think very carefully before voting to remove Article 40.6.1 (i). In a rapidly changing Ireland, we could easily be led to throwing overboard values which have served us well and which can do so in the future.

As a Catholic voter, I say that the faith of our fathers deserves better when it comes to removing blasphemy from our Constitution. I am sure that fellow citizens who are members of other believing communities will have a similar way of expressing the same principle.

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