Church of Ireland backs removal of blasphemy offence

Church recognises fundamental right to freedom of expression ‘within limits’

Bishop of Limerick and Killaloe Kenneth Kearon said the church believed the constitutional reference to blasphemy was “largely obsolete”. Photograph: Cian Reinhardt

Bishop of Limerick and Killaloe Kenneth Kearon said the church believed the constitutional reference to blasphemy was “largely obsolete”. Photograph: Cian Reinhardt

 

The Church of Ireland is supporting the removal of the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution in the referendum taking place later this month.

Bishop of Limerick and Killaloe Kenneth Kearon, speaking as chairman of the church and society commission, said the church believed the constitutional reference to blasphemy was “largely obsolete”.

The church has also said the human right of faith communities to contribute to public life without being subjected to attack or ridicule must be acknowledged and respected. 

Voters will be asked on October 26th, the same day as the presidential election, whether the controversial article should be retained or removed.

The Constitution currently states: “The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”

Criminal offence

The proposal to amend the Constitution, if passed, would delete the word “blasphemous” enabling the Oireachtas to legislate to remove the criminal offence of blasphemy.

The church said that it would have preferred to see a proposal to replace this with an article protecting freedom of religion and of speech in accordance with articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights .

Those articles protect an individual’s right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and the right to freedom of expression subject to restrictions and penalties “as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society”.

The church also urged the Government to pass the Criminal Law (Hate Crime) Bill, which was proposed in 2015 but has not been brought forward for debate.

“We recognise that there is grave concern at the way blasphemy laws have been used to justify violence and oppression against minorities in other parts of the world,” the church said.

Freedom of expression

The church added that there was a fundamental human right to freedom of religion but also the freedom of expression “within limits.”

“However, the human right of faith communities to contribute to public life, including public debate on issues that are of importance to everyone, without being subjected to attack or ridicule, must be acknowledged and respected,” the statement said.

“Religious and other minorities, in particular, have a right to expect that they will not be gratuitously offended or humiliated. We remind citizens that some religious and cultures may have different sensitivities for what they find offensive, and this should be, as far as possible, respected.”

Civil rights groups have called on the Government to introduce new laws that would address what the Irish Council of Civil Liberties has said are some of the highest rates of hate crime against African and transgender people in the EU.

“The psychological impact of hate speech on isolated communities, particularly online abuse, should not be underestimated,” the church said.

It expressed solidarity with all those who experience persecution and human rights abuses because of their faith or beliefs and urged the Government to make the country “a leading example of protection for freedom of religion, freedom of consciences and the human rights of minorities.”

British actor Stephen Fry was investigated under blasphemy laws in 2015 after An Garda Siochána received a complaint over an interview he gave to RTÉ in which he said God was stupid, selfish and “quite clearly a maniac” due to the misery and injustice many people experience in the world.