How a Comedian Pushed Ireland Into a Referendum on Blasphemy

Stephen Fry called God “stupid” in an interview three years ago. Now voters are headed to the polls.

The British comedian Stephen Fry
The British comedian Stephen Fry (Hannah Mckay / Reuters)

On Friday, Irish voters will participate in their second referendum of the year—this time, to decide whether to remove a prohibition against blasphemy from Ireland’s constitution. Like the decision in May to overturn a ban on abortion and the 2015 decision to legalize same-sex marriage, this vote stands to shift the country away from its traditionally Catholic heritage.

The referendum, which coincides with Ireland’s presidential election, will ask voters whether they support removing the word blasphemous from Article 40 of their constitution, which states that “the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.” A recent poll projects that slightly more than half of the public will support scrapping the offense, with a quarter still undecided.

No one has ever actually been prosecuted for blasphemy under the Irish constitution. But the one time an investigation was even attempted in recent years was enough to catapult the issue onto the national stage.

In 2015, the British comedian Stephen Fry appeared on an Irish television program. When quizzed by the show’s host about what he would say to God in the afterlife, Fry responded, “Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world so full of injustice and pain?” He was accused of running afoul of Ireland’s blasphemy laws, and Irish police opened an inquiry.

That investigation was eventually dropped, but the high-profile nature of the case sparked a public debate about the efficacy of the country’s blasphemy laws. In the aftermath of the Fry saga, an alliance of 14 Churches—including the Catholic Church—declared the constitutional clause “largely obsolete” and called for its removal.

Ireland had actually been considering removing the clause for several years prior. The country’s Constitutional Convention, a 100-member body of citizens and lawmakers established by the government to consult on proposed amendments, had long been debating the blasphemy issue. In 2013, it formally called for removing the blasphemy clause and recommended replacing it with a ban on incitement to religious hatred.

Ireland is one of at least 69 countries with laws prohibiting blasphemy, though its penalty is among the weakest (those found guilty are subject to a fine of up to 25,000 euros) and least enforced. That’s because for much of the law’s existence “there was actually no offense of blasphemy that was ever spelled out,” David Kenny, a professor of constitutional law at Trinity College Dublin, told me.

It was only after a man sought a civil suit against the Sunday Independent newspaper for printing what he deemed to be a blasphemous cartoon in 1995 (it depicted government ministers refusing the Catholic sacrament of communion) that Ireland’s Supreme Court formally ruled that “it is impossible to say of what the offence of blasphemy consists.”

This ruling compelled the government to set out a specific definition as part of the 2009 Defamation Act, which defines blasphemy as intentional words or images that are “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents.” Still, the bar for what constituted blasphemy was set high. The law states that if people find genuine artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in something, it can’t be deemed blasphemous.

It’s probably for this reason, Kenny said, that the charges against Fry were dropped. “I don’t think he did cause outrage, and if he did, he would probably have some significant defense,” he said. “It’s a good example of how far you have to go to enforce a law like this.”

Elsewhere in the world, blasphemy laws are much harsher. In Pakistan, the recently elected prime minister, Imran Khan, campaigned this summer on defending the country’s strict blasphemy laws. He’s also said he wants to revive a campaign for international blasphemy laws at the United Nations. In 2010, a Pakistani Christian woman known as Asia Bibi was convicted and sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad. She is currently awaiting an appeal.

In Indonesia, a Buddhist woman was sentenced in 2016 to 18 months in prison for complaining about the Muslim call to prayer, which she allegedly described as noisy. And in 2017, the country’s blasphemy laws implicated the former governor of Jakarta, who was sentenced to two years in prison over comments he made about the Koran.

Every major political party in Ireland has thrown its support behind removing the blasphemy clause, which Minister for Justice and Equality Charlie Flanagan said has “no place in the modern constitution of a democratic society.”

Though Ireland has existing hate-speech laws in place, some fear that removing the blasphemy clause without enforcing the laws further could pose a risk to religious communities. “The blasphemy law aims to protect people of all religions against hate speech,” Umar al-Qadri, the chair of the Irish Muslim Peace and Integration Council, said Thursday in a tweet, adding that the government should focus on “refining it rather than just deleting.”

Many of those who oppose removing it, however, don’t necessarily support the blasphemy clause itself. Rónán Mullen, an independent Irish senator, argued against the referendum on the grounds that it’s an unnecessary expense. “It won’t make much difference, a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ vote,” he said Wednesday in a televised debate with Flanagan. “But I would advise people to vote no if they don’t want any more of these silly referenda.”