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Churches voice concerns ahead of public rally

By Nevin Farrell

The Presbyterian Church says there is a need to provide better protection for people to exercise the right to freedom of conscience.

A spokesman was commenting ahead of a public rally in Belfast next week in support of a Christian bakery at the centre of the 'gay cake' row.

The rally is being organised by the Christian Institute in Belfast's Waterfront Hall on March 24, just days before the Ashers Baking Co case is listed for a court in the city.

A spokesperson for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland said: "While the Church is not actively promoting the Christian Institute event, a number of our members will no doubt be attending. As a Church we feel there is a need to provide better protection for people to exercise the right to freedom of conscience in the public square.

"A state does not act with respect for personal freedoms and diversity if it requires citizens, whether they are acting in a commercial capacity or not, to produce material which directly conflicts with their core beliefs and values."

Rev David Clements, chair of the Northern Executive of the Methodist Church's Council on Social Responsibility, said: "We issued a statement some time back supporting Ashers and that would be our position in that we would view that there should be reasonable accommodation for Christian companies who don't want to be actively supporting, through their products, a particular view they don't agree with."

A Church of Ireland spokesman referred to a statement by the chairman of the Church and Society Commission, the Rev Adrian Dorrian, in which he said: "It seems clear that the service was declined, not because of the sexual orientation of the customer but because of the particular political message requested upon the cake. It is a serious concern that the freedom of religious conscience that the law affords to all people has been challenged by the Equality Commission's decision.

"The owners of the baking company were upholding their adherence to the traditional Christian view on marriage as being between one man and one woman. In fact this position was affirmed by a majority of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland in 2012, and is the legal position in Northern Ireland.

"It is of real concern that a conscientious choice made by the owners of a small business, which reflects such a position, has been branded discriminatory and made the subject of heavy-handed legal action."

A spokesman for the Catholic Down and Connor Diocese said that the Bishop of Down and Connor, Most Rev Noel Treanor, met politicians at Stormont in February and said afterwards: "We are glad to take the opportunity to discuss with our legislators, in a calm and respectful manner, how to find a more just and reasonable accommodation for religious belief when conflicts between goods and services legislation and freedom of conscience arise.

"It is important that our politicians accept there is a real problem here that needs to be addressed. Our laws as they stand are having an unjust and disproportionate impact on those of religious faith. It is important that they don't just ignore the situation but seek ways of addressing it and of giving greater recognition to freedom of conscience and religion as a fundamental human right and a cornerstone of a diverse and pluralist society."

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