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    Critics of the blasphemy ban argue that the law is obsolete and reflects an Ireland long-gone.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.
    The chance to remove some of that language provides "an opportunity to take another step forward in the process of secularization," Kenny says, referencing two recent referendums that legalized same-sex marriage and abortion in the Catholic-majority country.
    Although there has been far less public interest into Friday's referendum in comparison, if repealed, the outcome will further reinforce that paradigm shift.
    Religious institutions, including the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland, have not opposed the vote to repeal. Earlier this month, the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference said the article on blasphemy was "largely obsolete."
    There is a smaller, yet vocal campaign to keep the constitutional clause as is.
    Independent Senator Ronan Mullen called the blasphemy referendum "entirely unnecessary," at the Senate in September. Mullen, who opposed both the 2015 marriage referendum and 2018 referendum on abortion, added that "the real intention" of the vote was to give "more politically correct red meat to the liberal gallery of media supporters that fawn uncritically" over the Irish government.
    "I refer, in particular, to the people who cannot help scratching the itch that is the God question," he said.