Same sex marriage NI: Amnesty International calls for ‘swift’ GB protections in Northern Ireland

Amnesty International says the transference of same sex marriage protections from GB over to NI should be “a matter for swift action” by government after Christian campaigners threatened legal action against the Secretary of State over the issue.

Wednesday, 20th November 2019, 4:55 pm
Updated Wednesday, 20th November 2019, 5:11 pm
Campaigners with Love Equality, the campaign for marriage equality in Northern Ireland. From Left to right. Becka Price, Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International and Matthew Corr Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye.com

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, which helped defend Ashers bakery in the ‘gay cake’ row, 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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But speaking after disclosure of the legal threat today, Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International gave his strong backing to the CI position.

“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 Mr Corrigan, who helped lead the campaign for same sex marriage in NI, also highlighted some qualifications.

He said it was “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”.

He added: “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 CI concerns in the wake of the letter.

“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.

The CI 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.”

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.”