Ireland awaits result in referendum on repealing blasphemy ban

Counting was underway Saturday in Ireland after voting in a presidential poll and a referendum on removing the offense of blasphemy from the constitution.

The Friday referendum asked whether to remove the word “blasphemous” from Article 40, which reads: “The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”

Although the nation’s blasphemy ban was enshrined in the constitution in 1937, no one has ever been prosecuted under it.

Exit polling late Friday by Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTE, indicated voters would repeal the ban.

If that’s the case, it would be the latest step on the nation’s trajectory toward a more secular, diverse society. Two recent referendums legalized same-sex marriage and abortion in the Catholic-majority country.

RTE’s exit polling also suggested that Michael D. Higgins would be elected to a second term as president, a largely ceremonial post, with 58% of first preference votes.

The RTE survey put businessman Peter Casey second, with just short of 21%, and the Sinn Fein candidate in third place. Six candidates are running. The exit poll’s margin of error is 3%.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar tweeted Saturday to congratulate Higgins on being reelected, based on exit polls and early tallies.

Critics of the blasphemy ban argue it is obsolete and reflects an Ireland long gone.

In 1995, a member of the public lodged a blasphemy case against the Sunday Independent newspaper, which had printed a cartoon of government ministers refusing the Catholic sacrament of communion. Ireland’s Supreme Court threw out the case in 1999, ruling that although blasphemy was technically a crime, there was no law to enforce it.

A decade later, the government eventually defined the terms of blasphemy as law under the 2009 Defamation Act. The offense currently carries a fine of up to 25,000 euros (about $28,500).

A high-profile case in 2017 drew attention to that law, when Irish police opened an investigation into British comedian Stephen Fry after a member of the public complained about comments he made during a 2015 interview on Irish television.

“Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world so full of injustice and pain?” Fry said on broadcaster RTE. “The god that created this universe — if it was created by a god — is quite clearly a maniac, utter maniac. Totally selfish.”

The Fry investigation was eventually thrown out, but the case re-energized the national conversation around the topic.