Lagan Valley DUP MLA Paul Givan will on Monday launch his Private Member’s Bill to introduce a ‘conscience clause’. Here, he argues that reasonable accommodation should be introduced to allow people of faith to live out their lives – in particular their working lives – according to their conscience
The decision by the Equality Commission to launch legal action against Ashers Bakery for refusing to print a slogan in support of gay marriage made headlines across the UK and beyond. It has also highlighted the fact that some equality legislation is having an adverse effect on those with religious belief when it comes to the provision of goods and services.
The more recent case where the Catholic Church has had to end its relationship with an adoption services provider has caused further distress.
I believe that this is wrong and there should be legislation that strikes a balance between competing and at times conflicting rights. That is why I am consulting on a Private Member’s Bill as a remedy to this problem.
Specifically what is required, and delivered by my Bill, is enhancing the sexual orientation goods and services legislation in order to protect religious service providers and those who want to access services in the context of a religious ethos.
My Bill would mean that ‘reasonable accommodation’ would be made in certain tightly defined circumstances. This would allow our society to make space for difference that encourages a tolerant society allowing people of faith equality of opportunity to contribute and participate fully in our community.
It is important to highlight particular cases which would, and equally important, cases which would not be affected by the legislation I propose.
It would not mean that an evangelical grocer could refuse to sell apples to a gay man. Selling apples does not involve someone to endorse, promote or facilitate a same-sex relationship in violation of his or her faith identity so there is no conflict.
It would not mean that a Catholic photographer could refuse to take a photograph of recipes created by a bisexual chef. Taking such photographs again would not have the effect of endorsing, promoting or facilitating a same-sex relationship.
However, it would mean that a Muslim printer would not be required to print a book promoting same-sex relationships in violation of his faith identity. Similarly, it would mean that an evangelical photographer would not be required by law to choose between taking photographs of a civil partnership ceremony in violation of their deeply held beliefs or lose their livelihood.
Given that the nature of faith is that it deals with higher loyalties to God it is very likely that when confronted by such a choice many people would rather lose their livelihood than be pressured by the state into violating their faith identity.
By enhancing the law to make space for people of faith to provide services my Bill will respect the rights of service users who want to be able to continue to access services in the context of for example, an evangelical or Catholic faith ethos.
There is no equality for Catholics that want to access adoption services from their Church which will now be denied because it is more important to put the rights of same-sex couples accessing adoption services from everywhere than Catholics somewhere.
Through this Bill I believe the Northern Ireland Assembly can strike the right balance and I strongly believe it is possible to navigate this difficult area much more effectively than is currently the case. This Private Member’s Bill can contribute to creating a society that is tolerant and respectful by making reasonable accommodation for people to live their lives according to their conscience.