Northern Ireland Same Sex Marriage: UK Government faces legal action over freedoms of churches and teachers
The Northern Ireland Secretary faces being dragged through the courts over the controversial same-sex marriage legislation planned to come into force in January.
The Christian Institute (CI), which supported Ashers Baking Company in its historic ‘gay cake’ case victory at the UK Supreme Court, is poised to take legal action in defence of religious freedom when the proposed changes come into effect.
The threat of a legal challenge is contained in a letter from lawyers acting on behalf of the CI to NI Secretary of State Julian Smith.
The CI points out that same-sex marriage laws on the mainland include extensive provisions to protect religious freedoms and free speech. But at present it does not look as though these will be in the NI law.
The CI insists legal protections must be provided – exactly as in GB law – which give proper weight to freedom of religion, freedom of expression and freedom of association.
The hard-hitting letter from a Belfast legal firm acting for the CI details concerns about the law change. Unless protections are forthcoming, the letter states:
“Our clients will look to challenge by way of judicial review any failure to reflect the balanced treatment of the issues in a manner reflected in the same-sex marriage legislation in England & Wales and Scotland.”
When same-sex marriage was introduced in other parts of the UK, protections were put in place to allow for conscientious objection to protect those who believe that marriage is between a man and a woman.
In particular, the CI says religious bodies and celebrants must have protection so they cannot be forced to take part in a same-sex wedding. This means they must be protected from being sued for discrimination ‘on any grounds’ – not just on the grounds of sexual orientation.
They also insist that school teachers must not be compelled to promote or endorse same-sex marriage. The 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.
Asked repeatedly for clarification or guidance on the matter earlier this month, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) declined to say whether it will consult on providing NI with protections equivalent to those in GB. 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.”
The NIO now finds itself facing potential legal action.
CI spokesman 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.
“Guidance is also essential. In the rest of the UK, when same-sex marriage came in the GB Equality and Human Rights Commission issued guidance to make clear that: ‘No school, or individual teacher, is under a duty to support, promote or endorse marriage of same-sex couples’.
“The CI is calling for protections for public sector workers, school children, churches, religious charities and the upholding of free speech.”
Their call has the support of pro-same-sex marriage groups.
LGBT campaigner Peter Tatchell told the News Letter: “The law in the north of Ireland should be the same as the rest of the UK.”
Rainbow Project Director John O’Doherty said: “We, as with the position of the Christian Institute, believe that the protections in place in England and Wales should be extended to NI.”
Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International said: “We want the same protections and freedoms available in England and Wales to be available in NI.”
Note for editors
The Education guidance from the GB Equality and Human Rights Commission can be found at
The quote above is from page 2.
Read a summary of the letter: the.ci/niosummary
Read the letter in full: the.ci/nioletter
For media enquiries contact Tom Hamilton on 07836 603977 and firstname.lastname@example.org or Simon Calvert on 07802 796512