A Christian campaign group says the government has committed to a raft of concessions that will protect critics of same sex marriage from prosecution.
the Christian Institute (CI) said it has welcomed concessions from the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) to protect free speech and religious liberty in light of the introduction of same-sex civil marriage to NI.
The CI said Secretary of State Julian Smith has written to its lawyers detailing a range of legal changes, after MPs voted to introduce same sex marriage into NI last summer. The CI said that legislation is being amended to;-
· Underline that mere criticism of same-sex marriage is not an offence
· Ensure religious bodies cannot be sued for declining to support same-sex weddings
· Protect religious groups which dismiss staff who enter a same-sex marriage
· Ensure that legal documents such as wills, are not forced to include same-sex marriage where that was not the intention
The CI said the changes will come into force on January 13, to coincide with the introduction of same-sex civil marriages, the group said.
The Secretary of State says he is also in discussion with NI equalities bodies over guidance for employers and schools to make clear that beliefs and opinions about marriage are respected in the workplace and at schools, it added.
Additional legal changes will be needed to protect ministers of religion and places of worship, most of which the CI said will not want to participate in same-sex weddings.
Simon Calvert, Deputy Director for Public Affairs at The Christian Institute, said: “We are grateful that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has recognised the validity of the issues we have raised and has acted to address each of the areas of concern that we have about same-sex civil weddings.
“We are consulting with our lawyers to ensure that these changes go far enough. We will be monitoring closely to ensure that the guidance needed to protect freedom of speech and conscience in schools and workplaces is clear and robust.”
The Rainbow Project and Amnesty International previously supported the CI’s call for GB religious protections to apply in NI.
A UK Government spokesperson said: “The Government has laid regulations that will make same-sex civil marriage and OSCPs lawful from 13 January 2020, with relevant protections equivalent to those across the rest of the UK. We intend to consult on same-sex religious marriage and conversion entitlements in the coming weeks. Further regulations will then follow.”