Irish Government Formally Responds to Open Letter to Eliminate Blasphemy Law May 3, 2015

Irish Government Formally Responds to Open Letter to Eliminate Blasphemy Law

For years now, atheists in Ireland have led the charge to repeal the nation’s outdated and unnecessary blasphemy law. As it stands, Article 40.6.1 of the Irish Constitution includes this passage:

The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.

It’s obvious why this law — especially the “blasphemous” mention — has no basis in a free society. It threatens freedom of speech and puts religious sentiments on a pedestal.

Earlier this year, Taoiseach Enda Kenny (below) said that his government would not put the issue to voters this year:

Taoiseach Enda Kenny (left) with British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg
Taoiseach Enda Kenny (left) with British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg

The Government agreed last year that a referendum should be held, following the recommendation of the Constitutional Convention that the blasphemy clause should be removed.

However, the Cabinet decision was only that “the referendum will take place at an appropriate date to be decided by Government, after the necessary further consultations have been completed and the required legislation has been prepared”.

As it stands, voters will already be deciding later this month whether to legalize same-sex marriage and lower the age to run for President from 35 to 21. I guess the government believes the people can’t handle thinking about blasphemy when they’re already straining over the other issues.

In February, an open letter (which I signed) was sent to Taoiseach Kenny urging him to reconsider not putting the blasphemy issue to voters:

The distinction between Ireland and those who carry out executions for blasphemy must consist of more than just the severity of the punishment applied upon conviction. Despite your recent prevarication, we the undersigned urge you to lead by example and comply with your promise of a referendum to repeal all Irish blasphemy laws.

It is your duty to take a strong position on behalf of those intimidated into silence in Ireland and more importantly, on behalf of those facing execution by nations who cite Irish blasphemy laws in justification and mitigation of their behaviour.

While Kenny did not change his mind, he recently sent a formal response to John Hamill of Atheist Ireland, who has led this particular campaign:

Fixing a date for this referendum will therefore be a matter for the administration that enters office in 2016.

In the meantime, the Minister and her officials are working on preparing the necessary legislation; and this is clearly provided in the Government Legislative Programme for 2015 that we announced in January. I have sent to the Minister a copy of your letter and this reply for her information.

I realise that your members are impatient to have the blasphemy referendum held as soon as possible. However, I consider that it can be counter-productive to put too many referenda to the people over a short period of time.

Hamill told me (via email) that while they support (and are actively working on) the same-sex marriage vote, they’re not done with this issue and will continue making their case with the next government:

We were disappointed that we couldn’t achieve an early date for a referendum on blasphemy but as you can see from this letter, we have been busy with follow up meetings in the Department of Justice and Equality. This work has focussed on evaluating the implications of various possible alternative wordings for our Constitution, from simply deleting the word blasphemy through to a detailed replacement provision on freedom of expression

Atheist Ireland will be returning to the United Nations in Geneva later this summer, for the periodic review by the Human Rights Council of the Irish State. We will be sure to highlight the blasphemy issue again as part of our lobbying in Geneva.

Kudos to the fantastic activists in Ireland for their work on this matter. There’s absolutely no justification to keep blasphemy laws around, and hopefully it won’t be long until the voters can have their say on the matter.

(Image via Cabinet Office on Flickr)

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