Mixed reaction to vote to remove blasphemy law

Constitutional Convention’s recommendation receives mixed reaction

The recommendation from the Constitutional Convention to replace the offence of blasphemy with a new general provision to include incitement to religious hatred, has received a mixed reaction across Irish society.

Last weekend the convention, set up by the Government to bring the country’s constitution up-to-date, voted by a large majority to remove blasphemy from the Constitution and replace it with incitement to hatred and recommended creating a “new set of detailed legislative provisions to include incitement to hatred on a statutory footing”.

The convention received a number of submissions from religious groups including the Order of the Knights of St Columbanus who argued that the blasphemy offence should be retained to safeguard the right of believers “not to suffer unwarranted offence arising from the gratuitous impugning of sacred matter”.

The Irish Council of Churches, which made a submission to the convention on behalf of a number of Christian communities including the Catholic Church, welcomed the conventions’ recommendation, seeing it as move forward in the protection of freedom of religion.

Mervyn McCullagh, executive officer, said “we didn’t ask for [blasphemy’s] complete removal from the Constitution but to have something positively framed in the Constitution to protect religious freedom for all. I think that is the mood of the convention”.

“We very much welcome the decision and are delighted that religious freedom will continue to be protected and enshrined,” he said.

However, Tom O’Gorman from the Iona Institute, warned that replacing blasphemy with incitement to religious hatred could result in more stringent restrictions on freedom of speech.

“We’re in favour of getting rid of blasphemy but not in favour of opting to replace it with incitement to hatred,” he said. “You can’t delete a provision on free speech grounds and replace it with something of even wider scope. If we say we value free speech, we should value free speech.”

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said legislators should not create “a law that gives religious groups an open door to suppress criticism and claim ‘religious hatred’ whenever someone says something that they don’t like.

“Unless it is carefully framed, such a law has all the potential to be another form of blasphemy law, but one that has teeth.”

The convention will now lodge a formal report to the Government.