Ashers judgement: Protestant churches unite to hail protection for Christians

Bishop Kenneth Kearon
Bishop Kenneth Kearon

There has been a warm welcome from across the spectrum of Protestant churches in the Province to the Supreme Court’s Ashers decision.

The trio of main churches – Presbyterian, Anglican and Methodist – all issued statements supportive of the protection which the judgement appears to offer to people with religious convictions, joined by other, smaller denominations.

Ashers bakery owners Daniel and Amy McArthur

Ashers bakery owners Daniel and Amy McArthur

At time of writing the Catholic Church appeared not to have issued any statement on the matter, and its spokespeople could not be reached.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland said the court “made clear that business owners can in conscience refuse to promote messages that run contrary to their personal beliefs”.

Its statement from its central press office said: “For businesspeople and private citizens alike, people of faith and no faith at all who want to live in a genuinely pluralist society, today’s landmark decision should be welcomed.

“We believe that the unanimous decision of the Supreme Court is an important milestone in helping to strike a proper and much needed balance in law between the legitimate expression of conscience in all aspects of society and protection from unjust discrimination.”

It said the law is not a “licence to discriminate” against anyone.

Rather, it said the case had been all about “discrimination against ideas, not people” adding that “forcing someone to promote a view that they fundamentally disagree with, runs contrary to how a free and fair society should operate”.

The Church of Ireland’s Bishop Kenneth Kearon, the chairman of its Church and Society Commission, said: ‘We welcome the affirmation of religious freedom and expression in this particular case.

“This is a complex issue which does involve the balancing of rights.

“The decision by the Supreme Court in this case affirms the rights of the business and does not significantly impact on the freedom of choice for the customer.”

The Methodist Church in Ireland’s said it does “welcome the protection that this gives to those who now cannot be forced to provide a service that conflicts with their own religious or moral convictions”.

However, it added: “At the same time we are concerned that minorities are not discriminated against and we are sorry that Mr Lee says he feels like a second-class citizen.

“When competing rights and freedoms conflict, it is hard to satisfy all sides, but we welcome the clarity that this judgement brings.”

Between them, the Methodists, Church of Ireland and Presbyterians account for the great lion’s share of Protestants in Northern Ireland; in the last census in 2011, about 345,000 people said they were Presbyterian, about 249,000 said they were Church of Ireland, and about 54,000 said Methodist – with other denominations being much smaller.

The Free Presbyterian Church said it will “rejoice” in what it said it a victory for “the right to the exercise of Christian conscience”.

The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland hailed the judgement and what it dubbed the “patient endurance” of the Ashers family, although it added this note of caution: “On this occasion the right to the exercise of Christian conscience in business has been protected, but in other cases it has not.”

Whilst no comment had been received from the Catholic Church, the Iona Institute – a Catholic campaign group – said: “The rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion are the hallmark of any genuinely pluralist and democratic society.No one should ever be forced to express a political opinion they disagree with.

“We hope this incredibly important ruling will not only send a clear message regarding the misuse of equality law but importantly help to protect against the spectre of compelled speech in NI and throughout the UK”.

Meanwhile Peter Lynas, the head of the Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland, said: “This is a win for everyone, no one should be forced to say something they disagree with.”