Same-sex marriage: New law has no opt out for Northern Irish florists, photographers and hotels

Hoteliers, florists and wedding photographers will be unable to refuse to cater to same-sex weddings under plans being drawn up by the government.

Wednesday, 19th February 2020, 7:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 19th February 2020, 1:32 pm
Daniel and Amy McArthur of Ashers, who spent four years locked in court proceedings over the so-called 'gay cake' row

The Northern Ireland Office has spelled out in black-and-white that such service providers will not to be given any “opt out” clause when it comes to same-sex ceremonies.

The news has come to light after TUV leader and QC Jim Allister submitted his response to the ongoing government consultation about the regulations surrounding gay marriage.

He said this appears to fly in the face of the Supreme Court ruling over Ashers Bakery in 2018, which found that the Christian McArthur family running the firm had been within their rights to refuse to make a cake bearing the words “support gay marriage”.

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Mr Allister said that it would be “intolerable and wrong” not to extend similar protections to people who make their money from hosting and serving weddings.

The controversy is rooted in the manner in which gay marriage was introduced to the Province.

The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 compelled the Westminster government to implement gay marriage on January 13 – but some issues around the freedom to opt out of such ceremonies have still to be dealt with.

The act says “the Secretary of State may, by regulations, make any provision that the Secretary of State considers appropriate in order to protect the ability to act in accordance with religious or other belief or opinion”.

With this in mind, the NIO launched a consultation on January 20 to ask for the public’s views on who should be able to opt out, with a view to drawing up such detailed regulations.

This consultation is set to finish on February 23 – this coming Sunday.

Much of the consultation document centres on letting religious officiants (and “those acting on their behalf or under their auspices”) refuse to take part in such ceremonies.

But delving deep into the detail reveals two key but little-noticed clauses (the only other media to have noted it to date appears to be LGBTQ+ specialist magazine Pink News).

One (paragraph 25) states that the planned regulations “do not allow [registrars] to refuse to marry same-sex couples, even if they have a religious objection to doing so, mirroring the position in the rest of the UK”.

And another (paragraph 50) states that the planned opt outs “will not apply to service providers that are not religious bodies, such as hoteliers, wedding photographers and florists”.

Again, the government says this is “in line with wider equality law... which requires that service providers do not discriminate on grounds of sex or sexual orientation”.

Mr Allister, MLA for North Antrim, said that this amounts to an effort “to strip people like the McArthur family of legal protection should they refuse to provide services for a same sex marriage”.

He also said the NIO was ignoring the “impacts on the civil, religious, human and employment rights of registrars”.

He said: “Here we have a situation where people have taken up the position of registrars under one set of conditions and now those conditions have been radically changed. If, as is often claimed, same sex marriage was really about rights then this issue would have been addressed.”

Last month, the News Letter reported that councillors on Mid and East Antrim Borough Council were concerned that council staff would be forced against their will to conduct same-sex marriages.

At that time Alderman Paul Reid, a DUP councillor in Larne, told the News Letter that they were receiving legal advice that such staff would have no legal way to opt out.

He said: “This is an issue of conscience. Just because legal advice says something is ok, doesn’t mean it is right for councils to enforce on staff... it is absolutely wrong to force people to carry out duties which are at odds with their conscience.”

Ciaran Kelly, the deputy director of The Christian Institute, which provided legal support for Ashers during its years of court hearings, said: “Since the courts have declared that support for traditional marriage is a belief worthy of respect in a democratic society, it would be better still if small business owners like florists and photographers were left to operate according to their conscience on marriage too.”

He also said: “It is crucial that free speech and religious liberty are properly protected in Northern Ireland. No-one wants to see faith leaders being sued for conscientiously objecting to officiating at same-sex weddings.”

But he said there are other areas where Christian viewpoints must be taken on board.

“Let’s not forget teachers and other public servants in all this. Whether it’s being required to wear a rainbow lanyard or to promote same-sex marriage, no-one should be compelled to express a view that goes against their sincerely-held beliefs,” he said.

“That’s why the Ashers case is so important. The Supreme Court judgment was unequivocal. It enshrines freedom to disagree.”

Mr Allister’s comments were put to the NIO.

It responded hours after the News Letter’s deadline.

Its statement read: “Civil marriages and partnerships are secular in Northern Ireland and Registrars cannot discriminate against couples on the basis of sexual orientation.

“Service providers are also required to comply with the relevant equality laws in Northern Ireland.

“Registrars and service providers are treated in the same way in Northern Ireland as in the rest of the UK. We will make further regulations once we have considered all of the responses to the consultations.”

To read or respond to the consultation, click here or type the following link into your internet browser: bit.ly/2wtcAll