Gay marriage and abortion vote: Church leaders express ‘disappointment’

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Church leaders and religious groups have spoken out following a Westminster vote to legalise same-sex marriage and liberalise abortion law in Northern Ireland.

A large majority of MPs disregarded DUP arguments about respecting the fact that both issues remain devolved matters and instead used an act of direct rule to change the law.

Both changes could still be halted if Stormont is restored by October 21.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland said it was disappointed that the amendments had been voted through while the Stormont impasse continues.

General Secretary Rev Trevor Gribben said: “While our Church’s position is that the laws on these sensitive issues should not be changed, we have said many times in recent years, that decisions on abortion and same sex marriage should remain the responsibility of our locally elected MLAs.

“We very much regret and are disappointed that parliamentary process has been used to bypass the devolution settlement agreed over 20 years ago. There are many pressing issues to be dealt with in Northern Ireland, not least those affecting our schools, hospitals, social care and welfare systems. These affect the lives of many of the most vulnerable and marginalised people in our society, including the victims of our violent past.

“Political cherry-picking of issues by MPs, when talks to restore devolution to Northern Ireland are ongoing and should be encouraged, is both regrettable and unhelpful, running contrary to the spirit of devolution.”

Before the vote, Bishop of Down & Dromore the Rt Revd Harold Miller Bishop Ken Kearon made the Church of Ireland position on these matters clear and urged that parliament should not impose its views in areas devolved to the Assembly.

He added: “All of us are frustrated with the slowness in restoring devolved government in Northern Ireland, but I do not believe that setting a date of 21 October after which legislation to change our laws on abortion and same-sex marriage will be introduced is the right course

“I plead for all concerned to redouble their efforts to bring back a functioning Assembly and Executive and the self-determination which we so urgently need.”

Methodist Church President Rev Sam McGuffin and the chair of the Church’s Council on Social Responsibility, Rev Dr David Clements, said it would be “disappointing if these things are legislated for ‘over the heads’ of people in Northern Ireland”.

In a statement, they added: “There are deeply held convictions on these issues, and although some attitudes can change remarkably quickly, there is no clear consensus here. With these devolved matters, there should be careful discussion and debate in Northern Ireland and democratic decisions made by locally accountable politicians.

“We understand how some could see these as issues that may pressurise local parties to come to agreement sooner rather than later. We also want to give every encouragement to our local politicians to make progress, but we are deeply concerned if these very sensitive issues are used as ammunition in that cause.”

Peter Lynas, Director of Evangelical Alliance NI, said MPs had voted to “ignore devolution” and “remove legal protection from the most vulnerable members of society”.

He added: “We understand that some will see this as a victory for equality and choice. But equality must treat both mother and child fairly and choice must recognise both lives in a pregnancy.

“Unfortunately Westminster MPs have placed personal agendas ahead of the people and the peace process in Northern Ireland. For over 50 years Northern Ireland has chosen a different way which means 100,000 people are alive here who otherwise would not be. It would be a tragedy if today has changed that.”

Director of the Christian Institute Colin Hart warned that free speech would be left “largely unprotected” if Westminster goes ahead with its plan to impose same-sex marriage in the Province.

The group previously backed Ashers Baking Company in its successful Supreme Court appeal against being required to decorate a cake with a pro-same sex marriage message.

Mr Hart said there has been “no consultation and no consideration given on how to protect those who respectfully disagree with the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex relationships”.

He added: “When marriage was redefined in the rest of the United Kingdom, this was done so in the face of overwhelming public opposition. But at least it was done following detailed consideration over many months. That time and public pressure ensured there were some free speech safeguards. What MPs have done offers little or nothing in that respect.

“There is a whole host of legislation that needs to change. Free speech protections that have been won over many years must be put in place in Northern Ireland. There need to be equivalent protections for Northern Ireland to those in the Equality Act 2010. If this legislation is to go ahead then parallels to the legislative protections that exist in the rest of the UK must apply to Northern Ireland.”