This Friday, voters will be asked if they want to delete the reference to blasphemy in the Constitution and thereby decriminalise it.
While most attention is focused on the heated race for the presidency, voters at the ballot box will be given a second slip of paper, regarding the referendum on blasphemy.
The Constitution currently says that publishing or saying something blasphemous is punishable by law. While the Constitution does not define blasphemy, Article 40.6.1 reads: “The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence, which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”
This is the second referendum this year. In May, the electorate overwhelmingly backed removing restrictions on abortions. But this vote is relatively straightforward and little attention has been given to it, in the shadow of the presidential contest.
The legal definition of blasphemy, contained in the Defamation Act 2009, says it is an offence if a person publishes or utters something that is “grossly abusive or insulting, in relation to matters held sacred by any religion” and which causes outrage among a large number of followers of that faith and also where that material or comment intends to cause outrage.
A convicted person may be fined up to €25,000, but there is no stated prison sentence under the act.
Nonetheless, a person may claim defence, if they can prove that a so-called reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific or academic value in what they published or said.
The Government notes that other countries that enforce a similar law cite Ireland’s rule as a justification or example. This damages Ireland’s global reputation, yes campaigners claim.
It has also been pointed out that the last conviction for blasphemy was in 1855 and that it has had very little relevance in recent times.
However, campaigners for the no side, such as Senator Ronan Mullen, argue that the vote is a vanity or even a “nonsense project” for the Government. The one-word reference in the Constitution has not caused anyone problems, insists Mr Mullen.
The vote is to placate certain groups, who have some sort of “God itch”, he also suggests.
Leaving aside the contrasting views, voters will be asked on Friday to remove the word “blasphemous” from the Constitution. Article 40.6.1 of the Constitution would then read: “The publication or utterance of seditious or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”
An Irish Times/MRBI opinion poll last week predicted that voters will remove the offence in Friday’s vote, with just over half of those asked saying they will back the deletion of the reference to blasphemy from the Constitution.
Polling would suggest there are regional differences to the yes and no sides for the vote. Up to a quarter of those polled said they were undecided.
Polling also suggests that older voters are less likely to support the deletion of blasphemy from the Constitution.
If there is a yes vote, the Oireachtas will change the law and thereby remove the act of blasphemy as a criminal offence.
A no vote would leave the offence in place.