At CARE in Northern Ireland we strongly believe that every individual, of Christian faith or any other faith, should be allowed to freely live out their faith in the public square without being forced to either act in violation of their beliefs or risk losing their job or business.
Recent case law demonstrates increasing privatisation of faith and a narrow interpretation of religious freedom. This has meant that it has become increasingly difficult for people of faith to live out their beliefs in certain areas of life. In Northern Ireland, this has been most evident in the provision of goods and services.
In May 2015, a County Court decided that Ashers bakery had discriminated against Gareth Lee when the owners of the bakery refused to bake a cake with a ‘support gay marriage’ slogan on the grounds of their religious beliefs. This decision has serious implications for those in the commercial sphere, affecting not only their right to religious freedom but other rights such as freedom of expression. Sadly this decision was upheld by the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal.[i] Ashers Bakery is now seeking to appeal to the United Kingdom Supreme Court with regard to the case.
Public polling prior to the Ashers[ii] decision revealed that 77% of respondents felt that Ashers bakery should not have been taken to court while 90% of respondents agreed that equality laws should be used to protect people from discrimination, not to force them to say something they oppose.[iii] It is evident from the response to this case that reasonable accommodation is needed. The idea behind reasonable accommodation is that efforts should be made to balance the rights of different groups to ensure that no minority strand should, through the exercise of their rights, require another minority to act in violation of their identity.
Back in 2011, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland recognised the need for reasonable accommodation across all equality strands.[iv] In December 2014, Paul Givan MLA published a consultation proposing reasonable accommodation for those with strongly held religious beliefs by way of a conscience clause.[v] The consultation received over 1,000 responses, the majority of which were in favour of what the clause proposed to do.[vi] However, while an important conversation has been started, no Bill was brought forward before the end of the 2011-2016 mandate. No further legislative action was taken in the short 2016-2017 Assembly.
As the Ashers bakery appeals the court’s decision, greater clarity in the law is needed and reasonable accommodation must be provided to allow people of faith to live out their beliefs in the public square.
Questions for Candidates
- Will you commit to fight for the provision of robust reasonable accommodation measures in Northern Ireland equality law so that no minority group can use legislation specially developed to protect its interests in relation to another minority group where doing so would have the effect of requiring people in that other group to either act in violation of their identity or risk being taken to court?
[i] https://www.courtsni.gov.uk/en-GB/Judicial%20Decisions/SummaryJudgments/Documents/Decision%20in%20Ashers%20Bakery%20Appeal/j_j_Summary%20of%20judgment%20-%20Lee%20v%20Ashers%20Baking%20Co%20Ltd%2024%20Oct%2016.htm .
[ii] Gareth Lee v Ashers Baking Co. Ltd  NICty 2
[vi] http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/opinion/debateni/paul-givan-majority-of-responses-are-in-favour-of-a-conscience-clause-31301299.html .