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US petition against 'anti-gay' Northern Ireland conscience clause bill gets 100,000 signatures in two days

By Claire Williamson

More than 100,000 people have signed an American petition launched just 48 hours ago in opposition to a DUP plan to allow people with strong religious views to refuse to provide services that offend them.

It comes as the Catholic Church has given a guarded welcome to DUP MLA Paul Givan's so-called conscience clause bill.

The Lagan Valley MLA's Private Member's Bill was sparked by a case involving Ashers Bakery, whose Bible-believing owners rejected an order for a cake iced with a message supporting same-sex marriage.

Ashers is facing a court battle over its decision to refuse to make the cake. The Equality Commission, which has taken the case against the business on behalf of the customer whose order was declined, has alleged the bakery's stance was in breach of equality legislation.

Mr Givan said he believed this was wrong and wants the law to be "rebalanced".

On Wednesday a Church delegation headed by Dr Noel Treanor, the Bishop of Down and Connor, met the unionist party at Parliament Buildings to discuss Paul Givan's so-called Conscience Clause Bill.

Despite a history of hostility, the two groups have found in each other an unlikely ally to take forward their anti-abortion policy and opposition to gay marriage.

Critics have reacted angrily and the latest petition launched on February 23 by the All Out Action Fund is just one of several which have gained considerable support around the world.

In just 48 hours the petition has been signed by more than 100,000 people around the world including the US and Australia.

Around 30,000 of the signatures are from people in Northern Ireland.

All Out Action Fund is run by an international team with headquarters in New York City and staff currently based in Argentina, Brazil, France and the UK.

On the homepage of its website it has called the petition "'No gays allowed' in Northern Ireland?" and refers to the proposed bill as an "anti-gay amendment".

It states: "We have just a few days to show politicians in Northern Ireland that denying service to lesbian, gay and bi people is totally wrong."

The organisation say they respond to "urgent issues facing lesbian, gay, bi, and trans people all over the world. Working with out global partners, we find creative, inspiring ways to push for equality everywhere."

In December 2014 another petition launched locally gained the backing of gay presenter, comedian and writer Stephen Fry.  

He labelled the DUP's conscience clause bill as "sick" and urged people to sign the petition on change.org against it.

It was started on November 23 by Omagh woman Dervla McGaughey and to date has reached almost 20,000 signatures.

Fry previously tweeted: "Please sign this: once again the religious right twisting truth to present themselves as victims. Sick." He has repeatedly expressed his opposition to organised religion, and has attacked church teachings on sexuality.

Meanwhile Sinn Fein have said they would use a petition of concern to stop the Private Member's Bill in its tracks when it comes before the Assembly.

The petition of concern - effectively an Assembly veto that requires the the support of 30 MLAs. Sinn Fein has 28 MLAs -with support from Green Party MLA Steven Agnew and Basil McCrea of NI21 it has reached the number required.

The SDLP's Alex Attwood said if the Bill was ever tabled, his party would also sign the petition of concern.

A public consultation on the bill closes on February 27.

What does the proposed bill mean?

  • Paul Givan says the focus of his Northern Ireland Freedom of Conscience Amendment Bill is “making space for rights that clash”. He says it aims to “make space for providers” and proposes that businesses may refuse a situation where they feel they are required to “endorse, promote or facilitate a same-sex sexual relationship in violation of his/her faith identity”.
  • For example, a Catholic adoption agency could refuse to place a child with a same-sex couple, a Muslim printer could refuse to print a book promoting same-sex sexual relationships and an evangelical photographer would not be required to choose between taking photographs at a civil partnership ceremony and losing their livelihood.
  • But, Mr Givan says, an evangelical grocer could not refuse to sell an apple to a gay man, or a Muslim printer could not refuse to print a brochure publicising coffee tables made by a lesbian cabinet maker.
  • The Rainbow Coalition, which supports gay rights, has claimed that under the Bill restaurants could deny a same-sex couple, a mortgage provider could deny a mortgage to a same-sex couple, and hoteliers could deny a room to a same sex couple as all could be seen as endorsing or facilitating same-sex relations.
  • The draft Bill has been published on the DUP website. The party is inviting responses about its contents to be submitted to its headquarters on Dundela Avenue in east Belfast. The consultation will close at 5pm on Friday, February 27.

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