Northern Ireland

Conscience clause 'gay cake' case leads to wider debate over rights and values

The cake was ordered for a civic event in Bangor Castle Town Hall, County Down, to mark International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia Image copyright Alliance
Image caption The cake was ordered for an International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia event in May, and another bakery accepted the order after Ashers declined

The case of a controversial cake has started a debate in Northern Ireland about rights, identity and values.

For both sides, the issues go to the heart of what sort of society people want to live in.

The Equality Commission's lawsuit against Ashers Baking Company is due to be heard in the High Court in March.

The Christian owners of the business refused a request to bake a cake bearing a slogan in support of gay marriage.

The story has been the catalyst for the DUP to put forward legislation designed to prevent such a case happening again.

'Balance'

Lagan Valley MLA Paul Givan will bring it before the Stormont assembly as a Private Member's Bill.

He said: "This would not allow the LGBT community to be discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation.

"But it would give protection to the faith community to provide their services in accordance with their religious beliefs.

"So it's striking the balance between those two competing strands of competing legislation."

The Freedom of Conscience Bill would amend the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations - a law that has been in force since 2006.

The draft legislation, as it currently stands, would mean religious adoption agencies would not be required by law to place a child with a same-sex couple.

It would also make it lawful for businesses to restrict the provision of goods, facilities and services under certain circumstances.

The draft bill says businesspeople could do this in order "to avoid endorsing, promoting or facilitating behaviour or beliefs which conflict with strongly-held religious convictions".

'Free and democratic'

Not for the first time on an issue like this, the DUP has found an ally in an organisation that in the past it may have regarded as an enemy - the Catholic Church.

Image caption Fr Tim Bartlett has said all people should have freedom of conscience

Catholic bishops are yet to formally respond to the consultation.

But according to Fr Tim Bartlett, from the Catholic Council on Social Affairs, they like the idea.

"In principle we support the motivation behind it, and the purpose of it," he said.

"At present, any citizen could be jailed, fined, or lose their job because they hold a perfectly legitimate and rational view in a free and democratic society.

"That can't be right."

Other faith groups generally agree.

'Cold house'

But there are many passionately held views on the other side of the argument.

At the weekend, opponents of the DUP's proposals held rallies in Belfast, Londonderry and Newry.

The singer Brian Kennedy was among those who spoke at Belfast City Hall.

He said: "I have one thing to say to Peter Robinson - get out of my gay life."

PUP councillor Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston is also scathing about the idea of the clause.

She recently entered a civil partnership and said if the bill was passed, it would make Northern Ireland a "cold house" for people like her.

She accused the DUP of "legalising discrimination".

"On the one hand they tell us the British identity of Northern Ireland citizens is under threat," she said.

Image caption Gerry Kelly said Sinn Féin would, if necessary, invoke a petition of concern to stop the DUP's 'conscience clause' bill from being passed

"While at the same time they would deny British citizens like me access to British laws and British rights."

'Discriminatory clause'

Alliance, SDLP and Sinn Féin politicians also spoke at the demonstrations.

Sinn Féin have said they will stop the bill becoming law.

North Belfast MLA Gerry Kelly said: "The DUP call it a conscience clause - I call it a discriminatory clause."

He said the party will, if necessary, invoke a petition of concern in the assembly.

This would mean the bill cannot pass without the support of a majority of both unionists and nationalists - in other words, a Sinn Féin vote against it would end the bill's passage.

Touchstone

Paul Givan said he hopes the opponents of the bill will allow it through its first debate in the assembly, so it can be scrutinised by a committee.

But he also said if the bill does not succeed, he still believes bringing it forward will have been worthwhile.

The DUP's public consultation is open until 27 February.

Around a month later, the Ashers Baking Company case is due to be heard in the High Court.

It is likely the bill will go before the assembly before the general election in May.

No matter how far the legislation gets - it will provoke more passionate arguments around what has become a touchstone issue.

You can see more about this story later when the The View is broadcast on BBC One Northern Ireland at 22:40 GMT

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