Same-sex marriage Northern Ireland: NIO silent on conscience safeguards for teachers, pupils, public sector workers, clerics, churches and charities

LGBT campaigners celebrated in Belfast after MPs voted to bring gay marriage to NI in JulyLGBT campaigners celebrated in Belfast after MPs voted to bring gay marriage to NI in July
LGBT campaigners celebrated in Belfast after MPs voted to bring gay marriage to NI in July
The Northern Ireland Office has declined to give any assurances that its expected consultation on same-sex marriage will ask about carrying over GB freedom of conscience safeguards into NI.

The issue came to light after the campaigning charity which backed Ashers bakery in its battle over the ‘gay cake’ row wrote to supporters to highlight its concerns.

Speaking to the News Letter, deputy director of the Christian Institute (CI) Simon Calvert noted that critics of the decriminalisation of abortion in NI say it has resulted in a more extreme legal framework on the matter than GB.

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“So our concern is that the Northern Ireland Office [NIO] may be similarly careless of the rights and wishes of people in NI when it comes to same-sex marriage,” he added.

In a flyer to supporters, the Christian Institute listed five areas of protection which it says exist in GB for people who disagree with same-sex marriage. It wishes to see them all extended to NI.

They cover safeguards for teachers and other public sector workers, safeguards against ‘indoctrination’ of children in schools, upholding free speech in law, and safeguards for churches, clergy and religious charities.

Mr Calvert said government ministers refused to allow GB protections into the NI legislation when it was passed by MPs over the summer.

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“So far we not heard anything from the NIO about these protections,” he said. “They have said they will consult on the policy of introducing same-sex marriage itself but they haven’t yet pledged to consult on protections.

“When the same-sex marriage legislation for England and Wales was going through Westminster it contained lots of strong protections for free speech and religious liberty. There were lots of debates about it and lots of promises and pledges from the government and supporters of same-sex marriage, that the rights of people that disagree with same-sex marriage would be protected. However, there wasn’t any of that when the NI Executive formation legislation was going through.”

The CI helped Ashers bakery win a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that refusing to make a cake with a gay marriage slogan was not discriminatory.

Asked repeatedly for clarification or guidance, the NIO 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.”

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Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International said: “We want the same protections and freedoms available in England and Wales to be available in NI.” No church or faith group should be compelled to – or prevented from – conducting same-sex marriages, he added.

Rainbow Project director John O’Doherty agreed. “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.

LGBT campaigner Peter Tatchell also agreed that NI’s same sex marriage law “should be the same as the rest of the UK”.

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However he told the News Letter that there are no protections in GB for teachers, public sector workers and against ‘indoctrination’ in schools.

“Opinions are different from actions,” he said. “Publicly funded officials have different obligations from private citizens.”

“There is no way that a private citizen should or could be prosecuted for expressing disagreement with homosexuality. That is rightly protected free speech. But this protection does not apply to public-funded officials like teachers who have a duty to comply with the equality laws, which protect LGBTs and everyone else.”

“The law in the north of Ireland should be the same as the rest of the UK.”