In 1702, Thomas Emlyn, a Unitarian minister living in Dublin, published a book questioning whether Jesus Christ was equal to God. The radical treatise, entitled “An Humble Inquiry into the Scripture Account of Jesus Christ” caused much outrage, and the next year Emlyn was charged with blasphemy and sentenced to a year in prison. Emlyn remains the last known blasphemy conviction in what is now modern-day Ireland. But more than 300 years later, blasphemy has been prohibited under Irish law – until Friday.

The Irish Sun reported that 71 percent of voters approved a referendum Friday removing the law from the books.

The vote moves Ireland away from its strongly conservative Catholic background to a more secular social agenda.

Under Ireland’s 1937 Constitution and the Defamation Act of 2009, blasphemy was illegal and punishable by a fine of up to 25,000 euros, or just over $28,000. The law bars “publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion.” And the Irish Constitution says that “the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offense which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”

The country is majority-Catholic, but the influence of the Catholic church on its policies is waning. In 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. In May, Ireland voted by a landslide to repeal its abortion ban.

The referendum has received tacit support from the church, which has not condemned it. In early October, the Catholic Bishops Conference called the law “obsolete” and expressed concern over “the way such measures have been used to justify violence and oppression against minorities in other parts of the world.”

Other figures have echoed this worry.

“By removing this provision from our Constitution, we can send a strong message to the world that laws against blasphemy do not reflect Irish values and that we do not believe such laws should exist,” Ireland’s Minister for Justice and Equality Charlie Flanaghan said in a June statement, according to CNN.

Ireland is one of 71 countries where blasphemy is illegal, according to a June 2017 report by the Commission on International Religious Freedom. But in terms of enforcing the law, many countries are much worse. In Iran and Pakistan, the act is punishable by death. In others, those convicted of blasphemy have earned time in prison or suffered corporal punishment.

Critics of the referendum say it is unnecessary and have raised concerns it will remove protection for the country’s minorities.


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