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Why the public expressions of religious belief should not be used as means to take offence

Carrickfergus hotel row raises many questions over how spiritual side of people is viewed today, writes Gail Walker

So, a mother, daughter and a group of friends dining at the Easter Sunday carvery at the Loughshore Hotel in Carrickfergus said they felt 'uncomfortable' during their meal because two men at a nearby table began proselytising by handing out religious tracts. When the hotel management noticed the diners were not looking happy, the two men were asked to leave the table.

However, this was not the end of the affair. Apparently the activity continued nearby.

"There was a man with his hands on a lady's head, she had her hands up and the man produced a bottle of holy water and the lady repeated what the man said… we had come out for Sunday lunch and our kids felt very uncomfortable," according to diner Kelly (who didn't wish to give her surname).

Fair enough, it wasn't baptism by full immersion or an exorcism complete with smoking cross, screaming priests and spinning heads, but it would certainly be an unexpected adventure for most of us out for a meal, even on an Easter Sunday, traditionally the most important date in the Christian calendar.

It turns out there was indeed a religious gathering underway. Pastor Paul Burns claims he and two other churches had privately booked the room to hold a Christian celebration. The hotel, however, denies this was the case.

Nonetheless, the incident puts fundamental freedoms under the spotlight. Even if we actually know what the word means, do groups have the right to 'proselytise'? And if they do, where and in what manner? And, most contentiously, what exactly constitutes 'proselytising'?

Of course, public displays of religious fervour are not in vogue. In fact, it could be said that there is active hostility against such displays.

Is there any more lampooned character in Northern Ireland than the sandwich-board-sporting, pop-eyed, full-throated, street-corner, preacher man, battering the gates of Heaven and Hell with equal ferocity? Is there a more obvious symbol nowadays for everything that is old-fashioned, angry, anti-progressive, noisy and unpleasant, than the Bible-thumping layman accosting innocent passers-by who just want to go about their business in peace. Or, indeed, eat their dinner.

All that, of course, is heavily caricatured. The call to something other than the materialistic view of life does not always or even often mean unpleasantness or bullying; it can as easily be the pleas of the Salvation Army or a harmless self-ordained mission of a few good people who choose to spend their free time persuading others.

A tract, after all, isn't a heavy burden to carry for a few feet before you discard it unread, or, perhaps, glance over it in just a moment's reflection on the many things we will never understand about the human heart.

I will freely confess that I value the contribution of religion in our society. What is very close to the heart of many here and the religious values that have shaped our society deserve to be respected.

The nub of the issue is the public vs the private and it is illuminating that both Kelly and her friends and those supporting the proselytisers cited the same grounds. Kelly said: "It was a public area and we had come out for food." Defending the idea of unfettered religious freedom, another pastor, Brian Maddens, told the Nolan show: "Jesus didn't do his ministry in a private place, he did it in a public place."

It has to be said that the Loughshore Hotel is not really a public space but a private business. When most of us go to an eating place we expect food, not religion, unless forewarned. Jesus did indeed minister in public. But so did Mohammed, Buddha, L Ron Hubbard et al, to a greater or lesser degree. I don't want to be distracted from my meal by people flogging their religious ideas - just as I'd feel offended by party political leaflets or impromptu speeches from the dining room floor telling me how I should use my vote.

So far, so easy. But life is rarely that black and white.

Once you move off the blindingly obvious discomfort zone, it all gets a bit tricky. What about a table of diners audibly saying Grace, with heads bowed? Or a group arriving in overtly religious clothing such as worn by nuns or the Amish. What about a dining room full of clergy, as Louis MacNeice would say, wearing their collars the wrong way round? Would we feel uncomfortable or under a kind of ethical pressure? Dare I wonder what attitude we would have to the burqa?

Is it just when these things are noticeable? Would it be alright for an adherent of one of the various offshoots of Mormonism to have his polygamous family at a large table, as long as it wasn't obvious what the set-up was?

Or might we already be at the point in Northern Ireland where we have to quiz ourselves about the wearing of crucifixes, 'miraculous medals', Masonic emblems or even Pioneer pins? Many symbols, emblems, even ringtones, are already banned in the workplace here, along with football favours and, obviously, political gear. But, as regards public display, do we ban church bells or the calling to prayer?

There are regular calls in the Republic to end the practice of the state broadcaster relaying the Angelus twice a day coast to coast. (Imagine if our fabled Orange state had managed to convince the BBC to beam a Lambeg drummer twice a day across the Six Occupied Counties!)

Joviality apart, in our rush to neutralise the public space, we must also be wary of stifling legitimate public expression of religious faith. Belief is not a purely private matter. Religious belief informs the lives of millions. How we see - or don't see - God informs our basic public beliefs. Not just in contentious ways, such as how we might approach so-called 'moral' issues like abortion and the nature of marriage, but also those 'Nice Day, Vicar' Issues, such as the duty to help the poor , the needy, those imprisoned and in ill-health - where it's not contentious at all because we all agree those are good things and happily leave it to religious people to mop up the homeless off our streets.

Indeed when it comes to public displays of religion, we're quite glad that not all Christians, for example, are content to keep their religious beliefs private.

Many people owe their lives to the willingness of those people to break cover and intervene in very public ways.

It's not really melodramatic to say that many of us do still depend on that Samaritan gentleman ambling over to our side of the road.

Because if he doesn't do it, you can be sure no one else will.

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