DUP: Sinn Fein preventing open debate on conscience

The Equality Commission began legal action against Christian-owned 'bakery Ashers for refusing to supply a cake with a gay marriage slogan
The Equality Commission began legal action against Christian-owned 'bakery Ashers for refusing to supply a cake with a gay marriage slogan

The DUP claims Sinn Fein is preventing open discussion about accommodation for religious consciences in business – by promising to block a bill before it has even been drafted.

However, Sinn Fein insists that the Assembly debate on Paul Givan’s conscience clause will still go ahead, as is normal practice when petitions of concerns are used to block legislation.

Mr Givan has proposed a clause that would protect individuals’ consciences after the Equality Commission began legal action against Christian-owned bakery Ashers for refusing to supply a cake with a gay marriage slogan.

Sinn Fein MLA Caitriona Ruane confirmed that she now has the required 30 signatures for a petition of concern to block the DUP bill.

However, Mr Givan hit back that he has not even drafted a bill yet and said that Sinn Fein should at least allow a free debate on freedom of religious conscience before they block his proposals.

The DUP MLA said: “Sinn Fein have indicated that along with Steven Agnew and Basil McCrea they will use a petition of concern to block the ‘Conscience Clause’ bill. No such bill exists however.

“I am consulting on proposals to prepare a bill for submission to the Assembly and therefore there is nothing at this stage to even put down a petition of concern against.

“What they are seeking to do is shut down the debate my consultation document has started on how freedom of conscience might be protected through reasonable accommodation.”

He added: “By preventing the Assembly even discussing the issue or allowing a committee to examine it then you are indicating that you simply don’t care about how people with deeply held religious beliefs are treated.

“Caitriona Ruane should re-read her own words when the equality regulations in relation to sexual orientation were being debated by the Transitional Assembly in 2006.

“In that debate she was adamant that these regulations would not impose on religious freedom and even cited specific examples which have since been proven to be baseless.

“The Equality Commission is pursuing a case on precisely the kind of grounds Catriona Ruane said could never happen, yet Sinn Fein are seeking to stifle a debate on how religious freedom might be protected.”

Sinn Fein said the signatories of Ms Ruane’s petition of concern are the 28 Sinn Féin MLAs as well as the Green MLA Steven Agnew and NI21’s Basil McCrea.

This means the party already has the required 30 signatures to block the DUP bill. However, the party insisted that the Assembly would still discuss all the issues.

“The debate on the conscience clause will go ahead,” a spokesman said. “Tabling a petition of concern does not stop a debate taking place in the Assembly and this issue will be debated.”

The SDLP said it had not yet taken a position on whether it would have a free or whipped vote on the matter. Alex Attwood MLA said the party’s core value is to “campaign for equality and human rights” and that he would “recommend” a petition of concern to block the bill.

Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson said that his party would not have a free vote. “The Alliance Party will be opposing the bill,” he added.

Claims by Mr Givan that his party had anti-Christian policies were “a cheap election stunt” he added.

Green MLA Steven Agnew described the clause as “a thinly veiled attempt to legalise discrimination”.