Belfast Telegraph

Legislating so as to allow religious exemptions daft

By Malachi O'Doherty

Paul Givan's desire is to defend religious freedom. He wants a change in the equality legislation to allow people of religious conviction to act in accordance with their faith, which could in effect lead to discrimination against gays.

The heart of this issue is not religion but one specific religious injunction, that homosexuality be regarded as abhorrent.

Does anyone believe that if they wanted to deny a service to gays on some other principle that wasn't religious that some of our MLAs would step in to stop them?

Does anyone believe that certain people's respect for religious freedom is so deeply embedded that we have to legislate to defend the rights of people whose faith told them not to do things they disagreed with or personally found abhorrent?

Such a law risks turning the right to discriminate into a defence of religious freedom, when the focus of concern could not be the freedom of the faithful at all but the rights of gays.

Paul Givan argues that he does not want people to discriminate against gays in the provision of ordinary services, but only when those services implicate good Christians in the apparent endorsement of the gay lifestyle.

So we have the case of Ashers, the bakery people, not wanting to bake a cake with a slogan endorsing same-sex marriage.

It's a tricky case. Ashers may feel that since its name is on the box that the cake comes in, it may be implicated, may appear to be speaking for itself rather than for its client.

The question is whether the right way to adapt the law to allow for tricky cases is to introduce a whole new precedent in the rights of the religious.

Similar umbrage has taken hold over bed and breakfast establishments and their obligation to provide accommodation to gay couples.

Religious people may wish to raise their children in the belief that homosexuality is an abomination. They appear to have the right to do that because it is a religious belief.

But if these same children see a bedroom being let in the family home to a couple of lesbians, they might think that their devout parents are hypocrites.

Should the law spare them that difficulty by allowing them to discriminate where their understanding of God's law directs them to?

This is a bit close to saying that we should temper the law of the State to accord with the law of God. Or at least one of God's laws.

And it is Givan's concern for one divine ordinance over others that makes me question his concern for religious freedom.

Paul Givan has been quick to endorse Roman Catholicism as a legitimate belief in citing the Church's withdrawal from adoption services now because it can no longer insist on serving only heterosexual couples.

This in itself signals a liberalisation in an evangelical culture which more often speaks of Roman Catholicism as illegitimate, unbliblical, heretical and worse.

Changing the law to allow people to place their religiously founded abhorrence of homosexuality above the requirements placed on them by the laws of the land is surely dangerous.

It opens up the possibility of the law having to determine which religious beliefs are legitimate and which not.

For now the working definition of a legitimate religious position, for the purposes of this law, would seem to be just that it includes the belief that homosexuality is sinful.

But once we start legislating to allow religious exemptions and other mad laws will suggest themselves.

Already we have religious traditions among us which revere the cannabis plant or worship before icons that some would regard as pornographic.

The only way to legislate for religious exemptions is to choose which traditions you will accord them to and which to refuse. That would land them with a much bigger equality headache than the one this daft law is trying to mend.

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