A DUP Assembly member has called for a “reasonable accommodation” between the rights of people not to be discriminated against and the right to freedom of conscience of religious believers.
Paul Givan, the DUP chairman of the Northern Assembly's justice committee urged such a compromise when launching at Parliament Buildings, Stormont for public consultation his Freedom of Conscience Amendment Bill.
Mr Givan published his bill in the wake of the decision by the North's Equality Commission to take a civil legal action against Ashers Baking Company for refusing to bake a cake for a customer promoting same-sex marriage.
The bill also comes after this week's statement by the Catholic Church that it is cutting its links with the Catholic adoption agency in Northern Ireland. This follows on new legislation in 2012 requiring the service to consider unmarried and same-sex couples to be allowed to adopt - which the Catholic Church opposes.
“I believe that we can find a better way of dealing with these areas of tension and of clashing rights so that we can create a society that is inclusive, making reasonable accommodation for people of faith,” said Mr Givan.
Bert and Ernie
The Ashers case arose when the bakery refused to bake a cake featuring the Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie and bearing the slogan, “Support Gay Marriage”. The cake was also to carry the logo of Queerspace, a gay, bisexual and transgender volunteer organisation based in Belfast.
The commission told Ashers, which employs 62 people in five shops in the greater Belfast area, that it would initiate legal proceedings against the company unless it acknowledged that it was in breach of equality legislation and unless it paid compensation.
Ashers, which is supported by the British Christian Institute, is resisting this demand and has accused the Equality Commission of engaging in a “David and Goliath” battle against the company because of its Christian beliefs.
Mr Givan noting how the story made headlines internationally said in launching his bill, “The case highlighted the fact that some equality legislation passed with the intention of protecting minorities is having an adverse effect on those with religious belief when it comes to the provision of goods and services.”
“I believe that that is wrong and that there should be legislation in place that strikes a balance between the rights of people not to be discriminated against and the rights of conscience of religious believers,” added Mr Givan.
“If an orthodox Catholic or evangelical printer was asked by a customer to print material promoting same sexual relationships they are effectively required to either print the material, and thus act in violation of their faith identity, or lose their livelihood,” he said.
“Rather than creating space and respect for difference this kind of legislation is profoundly illiberal, effectively giving one strand the ability to make life exceptionally difficult for the other,” added Mr Givan.
First Minister Peter Robinson in supporting the bill said he wanted to build a society in Northern Ireland that was respectful of all minorities. He said Ashers was "the case that broke the camel's back".
“There has to be space within the process to allow people of conviction to express their views and live within the faith that they uphold,” he added. “We are wanting to see change: a conscience clause in our legislation that will allow sufficient space for people properly and respectfully to exercise their faith in a way that accommodates wider society as well.”