Protestant and Catholic clergy have voiced calls for the traditional view of marriage to be defended when MLAs come to vote once more on the issue of gay unions on Tuesday.
Seven senior Catholic clerics, including cardinal Sean Brady, issued an open message to MLAs telling them that “the marriage of a woman and a man is the best and ideal place for children”, and deserves “special recognition and promotion by the state”.
The Church of Ireland also restated its position ahead of the vote, stating that marriage is for a man and a woman “to the exclusion of all others”.
Sinn Fein’s motion calls for legislation to ensure “couples of any sex or gender identity receive equal benefit”.
But like others before it, the move is destined to fail.
The DUP – staunchly opposed to gay marriage – has invoked a ‘petition of concern’ over the issue, meaning it would need the backing of a majority of nationalists and unionists in order to succeed.
But since the DUP has 38 MLAs – giving it by far the lion’s share of the unionist seats in the Assembly – the motion simply could not pass.
But even though its passage is set to be blocked, the issue is likely to remain a live and divisive one for years to come.
The Evangelical Alliance also joined with the Catholic and Anglican churches in reaffirming its stance against gay marriage yesterday.
However, last night there were protests by gay marriage supporters in Londonderry and Belfast, whilst Anglican organisation Changing Attitudes Ireland issued a statement backing the motion.
It noted that the Church of Ireland now permits re-marriage in church, and said it looks forward to “a similar development of its position on same-sex couples”.
Gay marriage law puts no value on normal family life, say bishops
Catholic bishops have urged politicians to reject “marriage equality” for same-sex partnerships in Northern Ireland.
The first gay marriages took place in England and Wales last month.
The devolved Assembly at Stormont is due to debate a motion on the subject today.
However, yesterday afternoon the DUP tabled a ‘petition of concern’ which means that there must be a cross-community majority for the motion to pass, effectively blocking it.
An open letter from the senior clerics said the proposal undermined the principle of equality by applying it “inappropriately”.
It added: “The proposed marriage equality motion before the Assembly effectively says to parents, children and society that the state should not, and will not, promote any normative or ideal family environment for raising children.
“It therefore implies that the biological bond and natural ties between a child and its mother and father have no intrinsic value for the child or for society.”
Politicians from the main parties in Britain have hailed the change in the law in England and Wales. Prime Minister David Cameron said the move sent a message that people were now equal “whether gay or straight”, but some religious groups remain opposed.
Scotland passed a similar law in February; the first same-sex marriages are expected there in October.
In Northern Ireland, with a greater proportion of Catholic and Protestant churchgoers than other parts of the UK, and at times a more conservative social culture, any change would be more controversial.
The Stormont Assembly motion tabled by Sinn Fein called on the DUP Finance Minister, Simon Hamilton, to introduce legislation to guarantee that couples of any sex or gender identity receive equal benefit.
The Church of Ireland also republished its position for MLAs’ attention yesterday affirming that “according to our Lord’s teaching that marriage is in its purpose a union permanent and life-long, for better or worse, till death do them part, of one man with one woman” adding that the church recognises “no other understanding of marriage”.
Today’s Stormont debate will be the fourth time in less than three years that the Assembly has debated same-sex marriage.
In October 2012, a joint Sinn Fein-Green Party motion was rejected by 49 votes to 45.
Six months later, a fresh Sinn Fein proposal to legalise same-sex marriage was rejected by 53 votes to 42.
On both occasions, the DUP tabled a petition of concern prior to the vote which ensured that it would veto the motions irrespective of whether there was an overall majority in favour.
Both were motions rather than legislation, meaning that they could only express an opinion, not change the law.
Last June, MLAs formally voted to reject the Westminster gay marriage legislation. They decided that same-sex marriages in the rest of the UK should be regarded as civil partnerships in Northern Ireland.