Norman Hamilton: Uneasiness over potential protections

Rev Norman Hamilton
Rev Norman Hamilton

Ashers were not the only losers as a result of the recent judgment by the Appeal Court, writes Very Rev Dr Norman Hamilton, Convener of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s Council for Public Affairs.

Wider society lost too, for there is now widespread concern (and even disillusionment) with the current law on equality, and on the mechanisms by which the state is applying it.

I believe that anti-discrimination legislation is essential in the building of a modern democratic society.

But I am also convinced that the current law is an example of legislation with severe unintended consequences, which needs revision to properly protect freedom of conscience and its legitimate expression in all walks of life.

In my view, the Equality Commission should help to lead the civic debate for reform, and in doing so would help restore faltering confidence in its role and its work.

Assurances have been given that any change in the law on marriage will include protections for faith groups to practice marriage as they wish, but it is understandable in light of recent events why some are uneasy about potential future developments.

On the ground, our congregations seek to serve their local communities. The Church also provides professional care and support to older people, refugees and asylum seekers, and those with disabilities – and we will continue to do these things as part of our mission and service.

I am not remotely interested in my faith being connected to the holding of civic or political ‘power’.

Furthermore, I have no reason to think that the mainstream Christian denominations have any interest in that either.

However, the churches are also part of wider society and will legitimately seek to communicate what they believe to be in the interests of the common good as they do good.

A modern democracy thrives when no one view dominates. Minority voices need not only to be heard, but their concerns and aspirations valued.

As our society inevitably becomes more diverse, pluralistic and secular, there will be a great temptation to value and celebrate everything – except deep religious faith whether it be Christian, Muslim, Jewish or of another tradition.

However unpalatable it may be, I do not want secularism and its faithful adherents to be top dog either. I certainly do not regard secularists or atheists as enemies.

What I do want from them, and from the communities of faith, is the high quality dialogue and conversation (which is so absent in our divided and aggressive society), that will open up common causes for the common good, and for those shared ambitions to be at the centre of civilised progressive politics and community life.

Sadly however, in the current climate, that seems more of an expression of faith than confident expectation.

* Rev Dr Norman Hamilton is a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.