More reactions to the proposed "Freedom of Conscience Amendment Bill:"
During 2015-FEB, "All Out," an American pro-equality group, initiated an online petition against the bill. It said:
"Northern Ireland’s proposed anti-gay amendment would make it legal to deny service to lesbian, gay, and bi people. Restaurants, hotels, and many other businesses could refuse to serve people just because of who they love.
Please remove this amendment from consideration. Throw it out and send a strong message that Northern Ireland stands for equality."1
Within the first 48 hours, more than 100,000 people signed the petition in opposition to the bill. This included about 30,000 individuals from Northern Ireland.
By MAR-23, they had collected 285,953 signatures. Some donors donated money to pay for rent of a massive billboard van that toured Belfast with the message: "230,000 people say No Anti-Gay Law in Northern Ireland." Below is a picture of the van apparently blocking temporarily the road leading to the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Also during early 2015, there was activity in the Northern Ireland Assembly to stop the Freedom of Conscience Amendment Bill in its tracks using a process called a "petition of concern."
This procedure was one of the results of a conflict in Northern Ireland between 1968 and 1998. It is known simply as "The Troubles." Some 3,600 people died and tens of thousands were injured during this dispute, which was largely caused by a disagreement between Protestants and Roman Catholics over Northern Ireland's independence from the UK. The conflict was finally settled by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 which restored limited self-government to Northern Ireland. 2 One of the components of the Agreement was a novel procedure in the Northern Ireland Assembly whereby a block of 30 or more Members of the Legislature (MLAs) could invoke a "petition of concern" and thereby veto any bill.
During early 2015, the Sinn Fein party had 28
MLAs who were willing to vote as a group to kill the Freedom of Conscience Amendment Bill. They also had the support of MLA Steven Agnew of the Green Party, and Basil McCrea of the NI21 Party. This made a total of 30 MLAs, just sufficient to veto the bill. They were also promised the support of the SDLP Party if the Bill was tabled.
The Northern Ireland Catholic Council for Social Affairs (NICCOSA) is a subcommittee of the Council for Justice and Peace of the Irish Bishops’ Conference of the Roman Catholic Church in Northern Ireland. They issued a "Response to the Public Consultation" on the bill that gave qualified support for the bill. Their response includes a summary of their submission:
"Freedom of conscience and religion is a fundamental human right that is essential to a just, free and pluralist society."
"... [that] those who hold to a particular religious and rational human view about sexual-relationships and same-sex marriage could be subject to fines, imprisonment, loss of business or job, exclusion from certain types of work or enterprise is totally unacceptable and inconsistent with genuine pluralism and the right to freedom of conscience and religion.
It is possible for the legislature to calibrate an appropriate amendment to current equality legislation that will provide a reasonable accommodation for religious conscience while at the same time avoiding an application that is unjustly wide or claims to conscience that are clearly transient, spurious or superficial.
NICCOSA therefore supports the objective behind the proposed Freedom of Conscience Amendment Bill, and the call to rigorously assess and amend it, if necessary, to ensure that its application does not give rise to unintended or unjust discrimination." 3
The Christian Institute is a UK non-denominational conservative Christian non-profit charity. In their response to the public consultation on the bill. they expressed a:
"... particular interest in human rights litigation to protect religious freedom. ... Over the past decade, The Christian Institute has been at the heart of major UK cases involving the conflict between equality provisions and the right of Christians to freedom of conscience. ..."
"We agree it is an unfair dilemma that pushes people of faith to choose between integrity of conscience and staying in business. The ... [current Northern Ireland] SORs [Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations] are an unbalanced law, effectively elevating sexual orientation as a protected characteristic at the expense of religion. Consequently, Christians can be pressured to act against their conscience position -- informed by Christian teaching -- that sexual activity should be reserved for marriage between a man and a woman ((Genesis 2:24; 1 Corinthians 6:). A more balanced law would recognize that freedom of religion is not merely freedom to worship or to believe; it includes freedom to live out or to manifest beliefs. ..."
"While we agree in principle with the proposed legislation, we would welcome a more limited scope. Regulation 16A rightly focuses on conscience and it is doubtful how far conscience rights can apply beyond family-run (or ‘closely held’ companies). It is difficult to see how the thousands of shareholders of a multinational company can share a collective Christian conscience. ..."
"The proposed legislation grants crucial space for freedom of religion and provides a better balance of rights. Goods and services law must allow space for religious conscience. We strongly object to the hierarchy of rights in which sexual orientation, in effect, trumps other rights. ..."
"Service providers operating with a religious conscience are vulnerable to legal action and uncertainty when accused of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. A conscience clause is necessary to protect this vulnerable group. ..."
"Protection for the manifestation of religious belief in goods and services is not a blank cheque to discriminate. We note that the proposed legislation is limited: it requires both evidence of a strongly-held religious belief, as well as evidence that providing the goods or service would amount to endorsing, promoting or facilitating behaviours or beliefs the service provider disagrees with. The law would not enable a service provider to refuse to serve someone merely because of the user’s background or the provider’s preference." 4
NIPSA, The Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance has 45,000 members who work in the civil services, public services, and the voluntary sector. In their submission to the Amendment Bill, they stated:
"We believe that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members should have the same rights as all others. We have been involved in campaigns to end discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity, and were involved in all the many improvements to the law secured over the years."
"We are therefore extremely concerned at the retrograde step in equality law being proposed in the Bill. We believe if introduced, the proposed amendments will significantly weaken protection for lesbian, gay, bisexual (LGB) individuals against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. We also believe the exceptions, if introduced, will weaken protection not only for LGB individuals but also those who associate with LGB individuals -– their family members, friends and those who are perceived to be LGB. ..."
"The proposed clauses are ... inconsistent with the approach adopted under other equality strands, including in areas where there is also the potential for competing rights. ..."
"... if [the bill is] introduced, LGB individuals in Northern Ireland would have less protection against discrimination when accessing goods, facilities and services or accommodation than LGB individuals in other parts of the UK. ..."
"We fully support the Equality Commission’s position that what is proposed is fundamentally flawed. Its intention is to allow all commercial businesses to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation and restrict the provision of goods, facilities or services so as to avoid endorsing, promoting, or facilitating behaviour or belief which conflicts with their strongly held religious convictions.
This means, if introduced, the Bill will allow landlords to refuse a LGB individual or couple rented accommodation or even allow landlords the right to forcefully evict a LGB individual or couple from rented accommodation which has the potential to increase LGB homelessness. This Bill will allow mortgage lenders to refuse a mortgage to an LGB individual or couple. This sort of discrimination and prejudice against LGB individuals restrict their rights to choose where and with whom to live.
If introduced the Bill will also allow restaurants and hotels to refuse LGB individuals a meal, a room, a function for civil partnership. This Bill will allow jewelers to refuse an LGB couple to purchase an engagement ring, commitment ring, wedding ring. ..."
"... we would be strongly opposed to any exemption for faith-based adoption or fostering agencies that provide publicly-funded services from the Sexual Orientation Regulations." 5
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The threat of invoking the petition of concern
seems to have terminated progress on the Freedom of Conscience Amendment Bill,
at least for now....
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essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.