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Alliance's Naomi Long and Judith Cochrane attend same church - but hold opposing views on same-sex marriage

By Rebecca Black

Published 29/04/2015

Alliance MP Naomi Long
Alliance MP Naomi Long
Alliance MLA Judith Cochrane

A Presbyterian minister has said that Naomi Long's support for gay marriage is not the position of his church.

Rev Frank Sellar is the Minister at Bloomfield Presbyterian Church, which is attended by the East Belfast Alliance candidate.

He told the Belfast Telegraph that the view of fellow church attendee and Alliance MLA Judith Cochrane was closer to that of the church.

Ms Cochrane abstained in Monday's Assembly vote over same-sex marriage, whereas Ms Long voted to allow it during a vote in Westminster in 2013.

Alliance has expressed "disappointment" over the decision of Ms Cochrane, along with two other MLAs, to abstain, and said it encouraged members to abide by party policy.

The Assembly vote came after Health Minister Jim Wells had announced his resignation following controversial remarks about gay couples.

An alleged verbal altercation with a lesbian couple during an election canvass in his South Down constituency added further pressure and the Belfast Telegraph on Monday revealed his decision to step down to care for his seriously ill wife.

The debate at Stormont later that same day also revealed divisions within some of the other main parties on the issue.

Leading Alliance women Naomi Long and Judith Cochrane are members of Bloomfield Presbyterian Church in east Belfast. Their minister Rev Sellar commented: "On that particular issue, Judith's position would be closer to the Presbyterian Church in Ireland's official line".

He added: "But that is not to say that we don't respect Naomi for her work in a whole other variety of different ways. For example in Westminster she has given a huge amount of care and attention to Christian minorities in the Middle East and elsewhere. On those issues she has done a fantastic job.

"As in any large congregation there will be people with a wide variety of views, but we are able to talk about those, we are able to communicate and understand each other's position on that."

Rev Sellar said there was no formal approach to Ms Long about how she should vote on same-sex marriage.

"There is personal interaction, but nothing of an official nature."

Ms Long commented that as a Christian and a liberal, she believes "equality and religious freedom are both fundamental to a democratic society".

When approached by the Belfast Telegraph, Ms Cochrane said she had been told that all comment must come from the Alliance Party press office.

The Alliance Party policy supports same-sex marriage, but three of its MLAs abstained from the vote in Stormont on Monday - Ms Cochrane, Trevor Lunn and Kieran McCarthy.

An Alliance spokeswoman said the party was disappointed by the action of those MLAs. "Alliance Party policy is clear and unambiguous in support for extending civil marriage to same-sex couples, with protection for faith groups," she said.

"Alliance is a diverse party and we will continue to engage with everyone on this issue, including our elected representatives, many of who are on a personal journey with regards to their own position.

"Those journeys continue as was evidenced on Monday, when those who had previously voted against abstained as they did not want to oppose.

"While we are disappointed, these important conversations around the extension of marriage and how it won't dilute equality for others will continue."

The spokeswoman added: "The party continues to strongly encourage all of its elected representatives to respect and abide by party policy when these votes are taken in any legislative body, with the majority of Alliance MLAs doing so."

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