'˜Gay marriage bill will have safeguards'

I am a Christian. I am also a liberal. I will robustly defend my right to practice my faith, to share it with others and to change my religion if I wish, writes Naomi Long.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 31st October 2016, 2:34 pm
Updated Wednesday, 16th November 2016, 5:02 pm
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long

However, as someone who is truly committed to freedom of religion and belief, I will also defend that freedom for those with whom I fundamentally disagree as I recognise that freedom is not a fixed quantity - extending it to others does not diminish the amount available for me to enjoy. In fact, the reverse is true.

In societies where freedom of religion and belief is protected, other rights are also generally better respected, helping to create more open, free and tolerant democracies.

In an increasingly multicultural and secular society, those of us of faith need to acknowledge that the right to freedom of religion includes the right to freedom from religion. We cannot impose our religious views on others, nor they on us.

Some have cast the Ashers Bakery judgment as part of an alleged pattern of discrimination against Christians. That is simply not true and risks whipping up fear and division.

The Ashers judgment did a number of things.

Firstly, it confirmed the right of an individual to hold and express a religious or political opinion in opposition to equal marriage. Secondly, it recognised a printer who prints material is not endorsing a view but simply fulfilling a contract. Thirdly, it clarified a business which offers such a service cannot legally discriminate against certain political or religious views where those views are lawful.

A company can opt to print either all political slogans or none, but it cannot pick and choose between those with which it agrees and disagrees. No one is forced to do anything they don’t wish to do as a result of the ruling: they merely need to have a policy which treats all requests equitably. Regardless, individuals and organisations still have the freedom to oppose equal marriage and to express their objections and opinions on the issue publicly. The Ashers judgment has not changed that.

There remain specific exemptions in equality law for faith organisations, and they cannot be forced to do things which conflict with their beliefs and doctrine, which is as it should be. That exemption was recognised in the Ashers judgment, when the judges ruled, as the bakery’s main function is not religious, the exemption, whilst important, did not apply to this case.

I, along with a cross-party group of MLAs, have begun progressing a private member’s bill to introduce equal marriage in Northern Ireland, the only region of these islands which has not extended civil marriage provision to same-sex couples. I do that because I believe where the state offers a service to its citizens, it should do so without regard to their race, colour, creed or sexual orientation.

We are all clear the bill must have strong safeguards to ensure legislative protections for faith groups to continue to define and practice marriage as they determine, just as the Acts in Scotland, England and Wales and Ireland had, something acknowledged honestly by the Presbyterian Church in Scotland despite its opposition.

The bill does not challenge religious freedom of faith groups but represents an extension of civil rights to a wider group of people.

Whilst people will have strong views on both sides of the argument, what matters for society is we engage honestly and graciously on issues which are emotive, and find mature and respectful solutions to those challenges, respecting freedom of and freedom from religion.

I also believe the bill offers an opportunity for fresh engagement with faith communities, secular society and the LGBT community which, if approached with generosity, may help to aid understanding and help heal relationships for the good of everyone in our community.