Dublin, 27 September 2018
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) has announced that we will campaign for a yes vote in the forthcoming referendum on blasphemy. Our full policy paper can be found online. A yes vote would mean the removal of the word “blasphemous” from Article 40.6.1 of the Constitution, which currently states: “The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”
Speaking today, director Liam Herrick said:
“Criminalising blasphemy has no place in a modern democracy such as ours. Freedom of expression is at the heart of our democracy and that must include allowing all speech that challenges, or even ridicules, ideas or institutions.
The concept of blasphemy exists to protect the ruling ideas in society. In many countries, blasphemy laws are used to punish people who call into question the moral authority of religious teachings on homosexuality and female sexuality.
Mr Herrick continued:
Irish people don’t want imprisonment for those who call into question the authority of religious teachings. This is not to mention the fact that the courts are not equipped to arbitrate what is, or is not, a genuine religious teaching.
With the marriage equality and repeal the 8th referendums, Ireland has taken important steps to bring our constitution in line with our progressive society. This is another chance to do the same.”
There are a number of wider issues which ICCL believes will, or should, arise from a public debate on blasphemy. These include freedom of religion and how religious minorities should be protected. ICCL continues to call for legislation on hate crime to ensure this.
A guiding principle for ICCL in this referendum will be the importance of defending free speech, while at the same time respecting freedom of religion and conscience for individuals. Individual freedom of religion enjoys protection under the Constitution, European and international human rights law, and domestic anti-discrimination law. These protections are appropriate and will not be in any way affected by the removal of blasphemy from the Constitution or from our criminal law.
ICCL intends to support national debate on blasphemy and these related issues. We will begin the discussion with a round-table debate on 2 October. Please contact ICCL for further details and invitations.
For our full policy on blaspemy, see here: https://www.iccl.ie/human-rights/vote-yes-freedom-speech/
VOTE YES FOR FREE SPEECH!
For media queries or invitations to the round-table discussion:
Sinéad Nolan: email@example.com 087 4157162
Notes for Editors:
Notes for Editors:
The ICCL believes that it is important for people to understand the difference between blasphemy and hate crime. The offence of blasphemy protects the authority of religious tenets, whereas the concept of hate crime is concerned with the impact on the person of particular speech and/or actions.
Ireland is obliged by European and international human rights law to have in place a robust framework to respond to and prevent hate- and hostility-based crime. In its General Comment No 34 on freedom of opinion and expression under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the UN Human Rights Committee states that “Prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant, except in the specific circumstances envisaged in article 20, paragraph 2.” Article 20, paragraph 2 of the ICCPR states:
Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.
Article 40.6.1(i) of the Irish Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression. Similarly to international and European human rights instruments, the Constitution qualifies the right to freedom of expression by stating that it is “subject to public order and morality”. However, Article 40.6.1(i) goes further. It creates the following constitutional criminal offence:
The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.
Corway v Independent Newspapers (Ireland) Ltd
In the 1999 case of Corway v Independent Newspapers (Ireland) Ltd,1 the Supreme Court held that the constitutional provision on its own was not clear enough to form the basis of a proseuction for blasphemy. In Corway, the applicant had sought the courts’ permission to criminally prosecute the creator of a cartoon published in the aftermath of the 1995 divorce referendum suggesting that the Catholic Church’s influence in Ireland was waning.
Defamation Act 2009
Due to the Supreme Court’s finding in Corway that the elements of the crime of blasphemy were not clear from the Constitution, the Oireachtas passed legislation in 2009 to give effect to the constitutional offence.
Section 36 of the Defamation Act 2009 currently states that it is an offence carrying punishment of a fine up to €25,000 to ‘publish or utter blasphemous matter’. The legislation explains that a person is guilty of the offence if they publish or utter ‘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’, provided the person intended to cause such outrage. It is a defence to ‘prove that a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value’ in the publication or utterance.
Prosecutions for blasphemy in Ireland
The crime of blasphemy has not been prosecuted in Ireland since 1885.2 In 2017, Gardai refused to prosecute Stephen Fry following public complaints about his words during an interview with Gay Byrne on RTE’s ‘Meaning of Life’ programme.
“Suppose it’s all true. And you walk up to the pearly gates and you are confronted by God. What will Stephen Fry say to him, her or it?”
“I’d say, bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should i respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain? That’s what I’d say.”
Previous criticisms of the constitutional and statutory offences of blasphemy
The 2009 legislation was widely criticised in public and the Government pledged soon after to put the question of the removal of the constitutional offence of blasphemy to the Convention on the Constitution in 2013. In November 2013 the Convention on the Constitution voted 61% in favour of removing the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution.
Over the past few decades, the Law Reform Commission,3 Constitution Review Group4 and Legal Advisory Group on Defamation5 have also all called for the abolition of the offence of blasphemy in Irish law.
In 2014, the UN Human Rights Committee called on Ireland to remove the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution. It stated the following in its Concluding Observations on Ireland’s human rights record:
1. While welcoming the repeal of the Defamation Act, 1961, the Committee remains concerned that blasphemy continues to be an offence under article 40.6.1 (i) of the Constitution and section 36 of the Defamation Act 2009 (art. 19).
The State party should consider removing the prohibition of blasphemy from the Constitution as recommended by the Convention on the Constitution, and taking into account the Committee’s general comment No. 34 (2011) on article 19: freedoms of opinion and expression, concerning the incompatibility of blasphemy laws with the Covenant, except in the specific circumstances envisaged in article 20, paragraph 2, of the Covenant.
1Corway v Independent Newspapers (Ireland) Ltd  IESC 5;  4 IR 485
2Forde and Leonard, Constitutional Law of Ireland (3rd edn, Bloomsbury Professional 2013) 573; Corway v Independent Newspapers (Ireland) Ltd  IESC 5;  4 IR 485 para 24.
3 Law Reform Commission Report on the Crime of Libel (LRC 41-1991) p12, para 21.
4 Report of the Constitution Review Group (The Stationery Office, Dublin, 1996) p274.
5 Report of the Legal Advisory Group on Defamation (Dublin, 2003) pp34-35, para 59.