Same sex marriage: NI will have few of GB’s free speech safeguards, warn critics

Critics of gay marriage will not have the same freedom of speech protections in Northern Ireland as in Great Britain.

Wednesday, 27th November 2019, 6:30 am
Updated Wednesday, 27th November 2019, 10:26 am
Daniel and Amy McArthur of Ashers Baking Company speaking outside court during their four year battle to clear the company's reputation against claims of discrimination. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Christian activists want safeguards that were carefully crafted into GB legislation to be carried across to NI.

These ensure that teachers, civil servants, charities, clerics and anyone else who might feel compelled to support same sex marriage, or who may wish respectfully to disagree with it, will not be penalised for doing so.

But the government has offered no reassurance that protections will apply here when the law changes in January.

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The Christian Institute (CI), which successfully helped defend Ashers Baking Co in its legal battle over the ‘gay cake’ row, says it is very concerned about the vulnerability of people who might not want to feel compelled to endorse changes to marriage.

CI Deputy Director Simon Calvert said it would take legal action against government unless it changed course.

“With just seven weeks until the January deadline, there is now insufficient time to hold a wider public consultation,” he said. “As a result, the new law will be ushered in without the religious liberty and freedom of speech protections available in Great Britain, leaving many at risk of falling foul of the law.”

Same sex marriage advocates in NI backed the CI’s call for GB protections in NI. Peter Tatchell, Amnesty International and the Belfast-based Rainbow Project all supported CI’s call for GB protections, subject to a number of qualifications.

CI Director Colin Hart said the NIO seems to be “only” focussed on introducing protections for religious celebrants who wish to hold same-sex marriages.

“But when same-sex marriage registration starts on 13 January another set of robust protections will be needed to protect those in Northern Ireland society who disagree with same-sex marriage.”

There has already been a high profile attempt in NI to punish those who disagree with same-sex marriage, he said, citing the NI Equality Commission’s four year legal battle “dragging” Ashers Baking Co through the courts. However, in the same year the Equality Commission in England backed freedom of speech on the same issue, he added.

The NIO recently said it is aiming to have same sex marriage in NI by January 13 but would consult the public later on “religious” freedoms – subject to an incoming Government.

“Indeed their statement is deceptively accurate,” said one of the UK’s most famous gay rights campaigners, Belfast UUP Councillor Jeffrey Dudgeon. “No consultation on the main part of the changes was of course not mentioned.”

Having successfully decriminalised homosexuality in a legal challenge in 1981, he says London has always used the liberalisation of homosexuality in NI to pressurise unionists to do its bidding, and believes this is also happening now, regarding the restoration of Stormont. He also believes the NIO is using the introduction of “religious” same sex marriages and conversion of civil partnerships as political bargaining chips.

In response, the NIO reiterated its legislative and consultative timetable.

The News Letter put Mr Dudgeon’s claims about free speech protections being used as bargaining chips to the DUP.

East Antrim DUP candidate Sammy Wilson replied: “We are aware of concerns in relation to the consultation on same sex marriage legislation.

“Those who pushed for the imposition of changes on abortion and same sex marriage did so claiming that they wished to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. The same protections therefore should be available in Northern Ireland as in the rest of the UK. This is something which must be taken forward by an incoming government.”