The Friday referendum asked the public whether to remove the word “blasphemous” from Article 40 of the constitution, 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 that voters would vote to repeal the blasphemy ban.
RTE’s exit polling also suggested that Michael D. Higgins was set to be elected to a second term as Irish president, a largely ceremonial post, with 58% of first preference votes.
The RTE survey put businessman Peter Casey second, with just short of 21% of the vote, and the Sinn Fein candidate in third place. Six candidates are running for office. The exit poll’s margin of error is between plus or minus 3%, RTE said.
Critics of the blasphemy ban argue that the law is obsolete and reflects an Ireland long-gone.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 eventually 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 punishable offense currently carries a fine of up to 25,000 euros (approximately US $28,500.)
A high-profile case in 2017 drew attention to that law, when Irish police opened an investigation into British comedian and actor 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,” Fry said.
The Fry investigation was eventually thrown out, but the case reenergized the national conversation around the topic.
Journalist Peter Taggart contributed to this report.