The Judge commissioned by the Stormont Executive to review hate crime in Northern Ireland has recommended major restrictions on free speech.
In a report stretching to 997 pages, Judge Desmond Marrinan recommends scrapping the existing protection for those who disagree with same-sex marriage.
He also recommends not including the defences for freedom of expression present in the Public Order Act 1986 for religion and sexual orientation. This is despite 97 per cent of individuals who responded to the consultation supporting such a move.
Currently, free speech on the issue of same-sex marriage is explicitly protected in Northern Ireland law under the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987.
It says: “Any discussion or criticism of marriage which concerns the sex of the parties to marriage is not to be taken of itself to be – (A) threatening, abusive or insulting or (B) intended to stir up hatred or arouse fear.”
Judge Marrinan recommends that this defence is repealed.
But when asked: “Should the defences of freedom of expression present in the Public Order Act 1986 for religion and sexual orientation be specifically added as defences to Part III of the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987?”, 97 per cent of individual respondents and 48 per cent of organisations agreed.
The report adds: “Respondents’ comments indicated that they strongly endorsed retention of the express defence of freedom of expression for same-sex marriage”.
Judge Marrinan also recommended adding transgender to the legal definition of hate crime within a new protected characteristic of “sex/gender” but without providing an additional free speech clause.
In response, The Christian Institute’s Deputy Director for Public Affairs Simon Calvert, said the report “should worry anyone who cares about freedom of speech”.
“No matter who you are or what you believe in, if these draconian proposals become law you could find yourself on the wrong end of them.
“The report declares the belief that you can change your sexual orientation to be ‘insulting and abusive towards homosexuality’. But people do change. Some who used to be heterosexual are now homosexual and vice versa.”
Mr Calvert concluded: “The Marrinan report’s ideology strikes at the heart of the Christian faith because it is a faith that requires us to change how we live, including our sexual behaviour”.
“The Apostle Paul wrote that the church in Corinth included believers who used to practise homosexuality. Does Lord Marrinan want to make it hate crime to read from 1 Corinthians?”
In a detailed legal opinion released in July, free speech and human rights specialist Ivan Hare QC argued that the absence of key freedom of expression provisions like those in England and Wales would leave free speech in Northern Ireland “more vulnerable” to infringement.
The following month Thomas Ross QC also warned the plans could result in people being taken to court for disagreeing with same-sex marriage.