Ireland to vote in referendum on 'largely obsolete' blasphemy law

Ireland will vote on whether to remove blasphemy as an offense from its constitution Friday. The Irish presidential election is on the same day.

(CNN)Irish voters head to the polls Friday where they will be asked to vote on removing the offense of blasphemy from the constitution.

The referendum on blasphemy is the most recent in a series of referendums poised to reflect the nation's continued trajectory into a secular, diverse society.
The referendum, which takes place on the same day as Ireland's presidential election, will ask the public whether to remove the word "blasphemous" from Article 40 of the constitution, which reads: "The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law."
    Although the nation's blasphemy ban was enshrined in the constitution in 1937, no one has ever been prosecuted under it.
    In 1995, a member of the public lodged a blasphemy case against the Sunday Independent newspaper, which had printed a cartoon of government ministers refusing the Catholic sacrament of communion. Ireland's Supreme Court eventually threw out the case in 1999, ruling that although blasphemy was technically a crime, there was no law to enforce it.
    A decade later, the government eventually defined the terms of blasphemy as law under the 2009 Defamation Act. The punishable offense currently carries a fine of up to 25,000 euros (approximately US $28,500.)
    British actor and comedian Stephen Fry was at the center of a 2017 blasphemy probe in Ireland.
    A high-profile case in 2017 drew attention to that law, when Irish police opened an investigation into British comedian and actor Stephen Fry after a member of the public complained about comments he made during a 2015 interview on Irish television.
    "Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world so full of injustice and pain?" Fry said on broadcaster RTE. "The god that created this universe -- if it was created by a god -- is quite clearly a maniac, utter maniac. Totally selfish," Fry said.
    The Fry investigation was eventually thrown out, but the case reenergized the national conversation around the topic.

    'A modernizing effort'

    Critics of the blasphemy ban argue that the law is obsolete and reflects an Ireland long-gone.
    David Kenny, Assistant Professor of Law at Trinity College Dublin told CNN that the vote signals "part of a modernizing effort on the constitution."
    At the time that the constitution was drafted in the 1930s, it was standard practice across European constitutions to include language that paid "homage to an almighty god," Kenny explains.
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