DUBLIN – For eight decades, the blasphemous of Ireland have risked the wrath not just of their maker and of the Roman Catholic Church, but of the government itself.
“The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law,” says Article 40 of the Irish Constitution.
But the government may soon step out of the religious enforcement business. In October, Irish citizens will vote in a referendum on whether the blasphemy clause should be stripped from the constitution.
Government officials are also leaning toward giving voters a chance to jettison another artifact of old Ireland: a provision of the 1937 constitution suggesting that a woman’s place is in the home.
As a practical matter, neither constitutional provision plays much of a role in modern Ireland, a country that little resembles the socially conservative bastion once firmly in the grip of the Catholic Church.
Whatever risks they may run in eternity, Irish blasphemers face little chance of punishment in this world. But the prohibition is still in the constitution, and a corresponding law is on the books, with a top fine of almost $30,000.
Last year, English actor Stephen Fry was reported to Irish police for blasphemy after he made comments disparaging God in an interview on a religious affairs television program.
If he ever met God, Fry said, he would ask him: “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?”
Prosecutors declined to pursue the case, and government officials have made clear that they view the blasphemy law as meaningless. Last year, Simon Harris, the health minister, called it “silly” and “a little embarrassing.”
The second clause that may go before voters in October is in a part of the constitution covering the family.
“In particular,” it says, “the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.”
Ailbhe Smyth, a veteran feminist campaigner, said that provision was a relic.
“It was very patriarchal,” she said. “The problem was, it never did women any good. It was never used by any government to ensure that women, or anyone else who stayed in the home, got any extra support or recognition. It’s redundant and obsolete and needs to be placed with all the other relics that Ireland is now getting rid of.”
Unlike the referendums on divorce, same-sex marriage and abortion, the move to decriminalize blasphemy has met with little opposition from the Irish Catholic Church or from most religious denominations.