UK Government acts on NI gay marriage concerns
The Christian Institute has welcomed concessions from the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) to protect free speech and religious liberty in light of the introduction of same-sex civil marriage.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith, has written to lawyers acting for The Christian Institute detailing a range of legal changes:
· Public Order legislation is being amended to underline that mere criticism of same-sex marriage is not an offence
· Equality law is being amended so that religious bodies and staff cannot be sued for declining to take part in a blessing or other event marking a civil same-sex wedding
· Equality law will also protect the ability of a religious organisation to dismiss a staff member who enters a same-sex marriage
· Trust law is being amended so that private legal instruments, such as wills, are not forced to include same-sex marriage where that was not the intention
These changes will come into force on 13 January to coincide with the introduction of same-sex civil marriages.
The Secretary of State says he is also in discussion with NI equalities bodies over guidance for employers and schools to make clear that beliefs and opinions about marriage are respected in the workplace and at schools.
Further changes to marriage law will be made in April 2020 to allow religious same sex weddings. Additional legal changes will be needed at that time to protect ministers of religion and places of worship, most of which will not want to participate in same-sex weddings. (In England and Wales, only a small fraction of places of worship are registered for same-sex weddings.)
Simon Calvert, Deputy Director for Public Affairs at The Christian Institute, said:
“We are grateful that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has recognised the validity of the issues we have raised and has acted to address each of the areas of concern that we have about same-sex civil weddings.
“We are consulting with our lawyers to ensure that these changes go far enough.
“We will be monitoring closely to ensure that the guidance needed to protect freedom of speech and conscience in schools and workplaces is clear and robust. The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland has a poor track record on these issues, having pursued Ashers Baking Co. through the courts for declining to support same-sex marriage.
“It is also important that there is proper training and guidance for the police to ensure respect for freedom of speech on these issues. We don’t want people using the police to try to punish those who believe in traditional marriage.
“We will also be looking very carefully at the detail of the forthcoming NIO consultation on religious same-sex weddings. It is vital, once again, that the law in Northern Ireland mirrors the law in Great Britain so that religious people are not hauled through the courts under spurious equality law claims.
“The Secretary of State has kindly kept the door open for us to continue our correspondence with his department on these matters. He has done the right thing so far. We will now be looking to ensure he maintains the same level of protection when same-sex religious weddings are introduced later this year.”