Same-sex marriage: Presbyterians say law to defend Christians’ human rights may be needed

A plan to deny Christian businesses the right to opt out of gay weddings has led the Presbyterian Church in Ireland to warn that Christianity is increasingly being chased out of the public square.

By Adam Kula
Friday, 21st February 2020, 9:27 am
Updated Friday, 21st February 2020, 11:02 am
Ashers bakery owners Daniel and Amy McArthur outside the Supreme Court in London in October 2018, where five justices unanimously ruled  that the Christian owners did not discriminate against gay rights activist Gareth Lee on the ground of sexual orientation by refusing to bake a cake that said 'support gay marriage'
Ashers bakery owners Daniel and Amy McArthur outside the Supreme Court in London in October 2018, where five justices unanimously ruled that the Christian owners did not discriminate against gay rights activist Gareth Lee on the ground of sexual orientation by refusing to bake a cake that said 'support gay marriage'

The church (which is the largest Protestant denomination on the island of Ireland with an estimated 198,000 adherents), also said the current plans from the Northern Ireland Office are in conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) – and that a new law may be needed to protect people of faith.

It comes after the News Letter revealed key clauses in the planned regulations surrounding gay marriage.

According to paragraph 50, whilst religious officiants will not be coerced into taking gay weddings, this “will not apply to service providers that are not religious bodies, such as hoteliers, wedding photographers and florists”.

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A gay pride flag flying outside the Northern Ireland Office in Stormont; the NIO is now drawing up guidelines to protect clergy from being forced to do gay weddings – but they plan to offer no protection to businesses

And when it comes to civil ceremonies, paragraph 25 of the planned rules says they “do not allow [registrars] to refuse to marry same-sex couples even if they have a religious objection to doing so”.

The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) is currently consulting on these gay marriage regulations, with the deadline being this Sunday.

The Presbyterian Church’s statement to the News Letter said in full: “The proposals as brought forward by the NIO will negatively impact on local businesses such as florists and photographers who are not religious bodies, but who

do not wish to separate their business practices from their right to manifest their religion in practice and observance – protections provided by the European Convention on Human Rights. The same could be said of those employed by local authorities and other public bodies.

“People of faith are part of the fabric of everyday life in Northern Ireland serving their neighbours and local communities through their businesses, public service, support for the marginalised and many other ways. In an increasingly pluralist society, creative ways should surely be found to facilitate reasonable accommodations that properly value the role of conscience in the public square.

“For example in the case of a civil registrar, who may not wish to officiate at a same-sex marriage ceremony, a local council could provide alternative arrangements to protect that employee’s freedom of conscience, whilst not frustrating the legal right of individuals to avail of the new legislative provisions.

“This is not a licence to discriminate. On the contrary it is a reminder that we must be wary of unintended consequences for one section of our society when seeking to provide protections for another, and of the necessity for continued high quality dialogue and engagement on these issues to facilitate the common good.

“In these matters reasonable accommodations must be found, and if necessary provided for through legislation. To compel people of faith to compromise their strongly held religious convictions, or indeed force people of faith out of valuable roles in our community, runs contrary to what we all desire to be – an open, tolerant and pluralist society where everyone can play their part.”

The ECHR’s Article 9 states that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion... and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief”.

This should be limited only in the interests of public order and safety, “health or morals”, or the protection of the freedoms of others.

The 1998 Human Rights Act effectively wrote the ECHR into UK law.

A further legal development came in October 2018, when after four years of court proceedings, the UK Supreme Court ruled that Ashers bakery was within its rights to refuse to bake a cake saying “support gay marriage”.

However, the articles by the News Letter this week highlight how slim the protection created by the case is for Christians; the Christian Institute believes it gives no power to Christian businesses to simply turn away two soon-to-be-married people’s business away because they do not want a part in any gay weddings.

Instead the Ashers protection is understood only to cover the right not to print a particular message.

For more on the NIO consultation, click here.