In 1702, Thomas Emlyn, a Unitarian minister living in Dublin, published a book questioning whether Jesus Christ was equal to God. The radical treatise, titled “An Humble Inquiry into the Scripture Account of Jesus Christ,” caused much outrage, and the next year Emlyn was charged with blasphemy and sentenced to a year in prison. Emlyn remains the last known person convicted of blasphemy in Ireland. But 315 years later, blasphemy is still prohibited under Irish law.
That’s likely to change soon after Ireland voted on Friday in favor of a referendum to overturn the country’s blasphemy law. The official results, announced on Saturday night, had 64.85 percent of voters choosing to decriminalize blasphemy, while 35.15 percent voted to keep the law as is.
Ireland’s minister for justice and equality, Charlie Flanaghan cheered the result, saying there was “no room for a provision such as this in our constitution,” the BBC reported.
“Ireland is rightly proud of our reputation as a modern, liberal society,” Flanaghan said.
The referendum vote is Ireland’s latest effort to move away from its strongly conservative Catholic background to a more secular social agenda.
Under Ireland’s 1937 constitution and the Defamation Act of 2009, blasphemy is illegal and punishable by a fine of up to 25,000 euros, or just over $28,000. The law bars “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.” And the Irish constitution states that “the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offense which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”
Now, the word “blasphemous” will be removed from the constitution, and the Irish legislature will change the 2009 law.
The country is majority Catholic, but the influence of the Catholic Church on its policies is waning. In 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote. In May, Ireland voted by a landslide to repeal its abortion ban.
The referendum received tacit support from the church, which did not condemn it. In early October, the Catholic Bishops Conference called the law “obsolete” and expressed concern over “the way such measures have been used to justify violence and oppression against minorities in other parts of the world.”
Other figures have echoed this worry.
“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,” Flanaghan said in a June statement, according to CNN.
Ireland is one of 71 countries where blasphemy is illegal, according to a June 2017 report by the Commission on International Religious Freedom. But in terms of enforcing the law, many countries are much worse. In Iran and Pakistan, the act is punishable by death. In others, those convicted of blasphemy have served time in prison or received corporal punishment.
Critics of the referendum called it unnecessary and raised concerns it will remove protection for the country’s minority populations.
Ali Selim of the Islamic Cultural Center of Ireland told the BBC that keeping blasphemy in the constitution protects “the cohesiveness” of communities in Ireland and guarantees their rights and freedoms.
correction: An earlier version of this article said Ireland was the first country in the world to legalize gay marriage. It was the first country to do so by popular vote.