The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Ireland, blasphemy can cost you $30,000. A referendum could change that.

An Irish flag flies above a stall on Grafton Street in Dublin on June 4. (Jason Alden/Bloomberg News)

In 2015, when British comedian Stephen Fry went on the Irish TV program “The Meaning of Life,” he was asked what he'd like to tell God.

“I’d say ‘Bone cancer in children, what’s that about?’ " he said. “Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?” If a god did indeed invent the universe, he added, then that god “is quite clearly a maniac, an utter maniac, totally selfish.”

Then an anonymous Irish citizen walked into a police station in County Clare and said he’d like to report Fry for committing a crime.

Blasphemy is illegal under the country's 1937 constitution, and the Defamation Act, introduced in 2009, means blasphemous remarks are punishable by a fine of up to 25,000 euros — about $30,000. The law prohibits “publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion.”

No publicly known blasphemy cases have led to prosecution in recent years, and Fry’s case was no different. Nothing much appeared to happen after the complaint about Fry’s remarks was filed, and the investigation was dropped last year.

But the incident still sparked an uproar in Ireland and drew attention to the blasphemy law, which critics say is outdated and sets a negative precedent for other countries that now point to Ireland to justify their own harsh blasphemy laws. Now Irish voters will have a chance to change that: This week, Ireland announced it will hold a referendum to remove blasphemy from the constitution.

“By removing this provision from our constitution, we can send a strong message to the world that laws against blasphemy do not reflect Irish values and that we do not believe such laws should exist,” said Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan. The vote will probably take place in October.

The upcoming blasphemy referendum will be the latest in votes that have proved how far modern-day Ireland has moved from its conservative past. In 2015, Ireland voted to legalize same-sex marriage. Last month, Ireland voted in a landslide referendum to repeal its abortion ban.

Read more

Ireland votes to overturn its abortion ban, 'culmination of a quiet revolution,' prime minister says

Ireland's voters approve same-sex marriage. Here's how that happened.

Ireland votes on its abortion ban, a 'once in a generation' decision