A leader of Northern Ireland’s largest Christian denomination has raised concerns that a new marriage law passed this week, which doesn’t allow businesses to refuse service to same-sex couples on grounds of conscience, is a violation of religious freedom.
“We have a concern that in a tolerant society, people’s conscience and freedoms should be protected in the law — people who are involved in what may be termed the ‘marriage business’: photographers, florists, car hire firms, civil registrars,” the Rev. Daniel Kane, convener of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s council for public affairs, told Premier.
The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 removes the prohibition on the religious marriage of same-sex couples starting on Sept. 1, but will not compel churches or individual clerics to conduct ceremonies for same-sex couples. However, the law doesn’t give the same protection to those in the marriage industry.
Kane said the Northern Irish Assembly “should find creative ways to give these people the freedom to express their sincerely held points of view, both within the Christian community and others who are not within the Christian community as well.”
In 2018, the U.K.'s Supreme Court decided that an evangelical couple, Daniel McArthur and his wife, Amy, of Ashers Bakery in Belfast, did not discriminate against a gay man by refusing to make him a same-sex wedding cake.
The couple had previously lost a lower court case and a subsequent appeal that found them guilty of discrimination in 2014. They had been accused of refusing to make gay rights activist Gareth Lee a cake in support of same-sex marriage, which they said goes against their religious beliefs.
The Rev. Chris Hudson from All Souls Church in Belfast, a member of the Non-Subscribing Church of Ireland, views the passing of the law allowing clergy to official same-sex weddings as a positive development. “This is great news for couples who wish to celebrate their marriage in church, embraced by family, friends and the love of God,” he said, according to Belfast Telegraph.
However, the Church of Ireland, Methodist, and Presbyterian Church in Ireland, along with the Catholic Church are all opposed to same-sex marriage.
Same-sex civil marriages were legalized in Northern Ireland in January under regulations laid in line with the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2019, which required the Northern Ireland Secretary to introduce secondary legislation providing for same-sex marriage and greater access to abortion if devolution was not restored by Oct. 21 that year, according to Irish Legal News.
The Christian Institute had expressed concern that the new law “could get in the way of free speech and debate about gay marriage.”
It had warned the Northern Ireland Office that it would seek legal action unless citizens received “clear protections for free speech, written into public order law, just like they were in England and Wales before gay marriage was introduced there.”
Colin Hart, director of The Christian Institute, had said at the time that “when same-sex marriage registration starts on 13 January another set of robust protections will be needed to protect those in Northern Irish society who disagree with same-sex marriage.”
Several churches in Northern Ireland had also previously insisted they would only conduct marriages between a man and a woman despite the legal change.
“The Church of Ireland affirms, according to our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its purpose a union permanent and lifelong, for better or worse, till death do them part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side,” a spokesperson for the Church of Ireland told the Belfast Telegraph.