Same sex marriage NI: Ashers campaigners threaten legal action to defend ‘religious freedom’

Campaigners who defended Ashers bakery in the ‘gay cake’ row have threatened legal action against the Secretary of State if GB protections on same sex marriage are not carried into Northern Ireland.

Wednesday, 20th November 2019, 11:21 am
Updated Wednesday, 20th November 2019, 6:02 pm
Julian Smith MP, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Photo: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press

The threat of a legal challenge is contained in a letter from lawyers acting on behalf of the Christian Institute (CI) to NI Secretary of State Julian Smith.

The CI is arguing that same-sex marriage laws In GB include extensive provisions to protect religious freedoms and free speech but that at present it does not believe these will be in the NI law.

CI Deputy Director Simon Calvert has said that concerns have been heightened after the recent decriminisation of abortion in Northern Ireland, which leaves the Province in a much more liberal legal position than GB on that issue.

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A Belfast legal firm acting for CI has written to the Secretary of State saying that unless protections are forthcoming, CI will “look to challenge by way of judicial review any failure to reflect the balanced treatment of the issues in a manner reflected in the same-sex marriage legislation in England & Wales and Scotland”.

CI says that when same-sex marriage was introduced in other parts of the UK, protections were put in place to allow for conscientious objection to protect those who believe that marriage is between a man and a woman.

In particular, the CI says religious bodies and celebrants must have protection so they cannot be forced to take part in a same-sex wedding. This means they must be protected from being sued for discrimination ‘on any grounds’ – not just on the grounds of sexual orientation.

They also insist that school teachers must not be compelled to promote or endorse same-sex marriage. The legal letter states:

“Our client expects same-sex marriage regulations in NI to include no less in the way of legal protections than is provided for in the rest of the UK. We also expect similar assurances to be given by ministers in relation to the impact on education and for similar appropriate guidance to be issued to schools.”

The CI cites the Ashers judgment from the UK Supreme Court, which emphasises that no one should be compelled to endorse a view contrary to their own.

CI’s Simon Calvert said: “Same-sex marriage is about to be legalised from 13 January and proper protections for those who disagree will not be in force. That’s the implication of what the NIO says.

“Parliament took the best part of a year to debate introducing same-sex marriage in England and Wales. For Northern Ireland, MPs took only a couple of hours. In the rest of the UK there are many protections for those who disagree with same-sex marriage. Not so in Northern Ireland, with the Secretary of State and the NIO not seeming to be bothered.

“Churches must not be sued if they refuse to do a same-sex marriage. And public order law must be amended to stop church ministers being prosecuted for sermons that disagree with same-sex marriage. The new law has to make this clear.”

Last year the CI helped Ashers bakery in Belfast win Supreme Court ruling that refusing to make a cake with a gay marriage slogan on it was not discriminatory.

Asked repeatedly for clarification or guidance by the News Letter, the NIO has declined to say whether it will consult on the GB protections. A spokeswoman said: “Parliament passed legislation which requires the government to put in place legislation to allow for civil same-sex marriage and opposite sex civil partnership in Northern Ireland by January 13 2020. We are working to meet this deadline.”

Responding to the CI statement, Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International gave strong support for the CI position, with some qualifications.

“We want the same legal protections and freedoms available in England and Wales to be available in Northern Ireland, both for loving couples and for church ministers, whether they wish to conduct same-sex marriages or not,” he said.

“Given the apparent unanimity on the issue, and an existing legal template in England and Wales, this ought to be a matter for swift action by the NIO. We would like to see all changes implemented by the January 13th deadline set down in the law.

“There are already clear protections in Northern Ireland law for freedom of expression and these will not be affected by the introduction of marriage equality.

“However, it is crucial that LGBT+ pupils and children of same-sex parents can experience school as a safe space, where they are supported and protected from homophobic bullying. From research in Northern Ireland schools, we know that is sadly not currently the case and is a matter for the Department of Education to urgently address.”

LGBT campaigner Peter Tatchell also broadly supported the group’s concerns.

“The Northern Irish legislation should be the same as in the rest of the UK with some small exceptions,” he said.

“Religious bodies should not be compelled to conduct same-sex marriages if they object to them but they should be free to perform such marriages if they agree with them. The England and Wales legislation forbidding some churches from conducting same-sex marriages - even if they wish to - is an attack on religious freedom and should not be included in Northern Irish law.

“Religious individuals and religious-owned businesses should not be permitted to discriminate against LGBT people in the provision of goods and services. Schools have a moral duty to teach about social diversity, including the existence and human rights of LGBTs. Religion can never be used legitimately to deny equal treatment. Christian teachers and civil marriage registrars should have a legal obligation to provide the same services to LGBTs as they provide to everyone else. There should be no ‘conscience clause’ get out for people of faith.”

Last week, Rainbow Project director John O’Doherty took a similar position.

“We, as with the position of the Christian Institute, believe that the protections in place in England and Wales should be extended to NI” he said.

However, discussing homosexuality in schools is important to help LGBT pupils feel safe, but is only protected by law in GB and not NI, he added.

Just before 5pm today the NIO issued a fresh line in response to the CI threat.

It said: “In terms of religious same-sex marriage, as the SoSNI announced in Parliament in October, a public consultation on the issue of religious same-sex marriage and protection of religious freedoms in Northern Ireland is being prepared for intended publication, subject to confirmation by an incoming Government.”

Mr Calvert gave a guarded welcome to the comment.

“We welcome the fact that the Northern Ireland Office is now at least talking about the need for religious protections,” he said. “However, what we really need is a clear guarantee that all the protections in GB will be mirrored in Northern Ireland.”