The Bible should not be last word for politicians
Is it all right to be offensive, provided the words you use are in the Bible, or your favoured translation of it? When is it right to keep religious rhetoric out of political discourse?
It was a lively meeting at Magherafelt District Council this month. A Sinn Fein motion backing Conservative plans to permit gay marriage - or "equal marriage", as the gay lobby prefers - got some unionists riled.
Jackie Crawford, of the UUP, caught the headlines. He said of homosexuals: "It's a pity they have that disease and they can't help it"; arguing that people should feel sympathy for sufferers, some of whom were "nice people".
Paul McLean, the DUP chairman, called homosexuality an "abomination", expressing vehement opposition to the motion.
When I rang councillor Crawford afterwards, he quickly concluded he had put his foot in it and withdrew the "disease" reference.
He said that all he had meant was that people were born gay and could not change. He regretted using the words complained of. Later, his party also apologised for his language.
Councillor McLean was a different matter. He pointed out that he was only quoting the Bible. "I am not going to apologise for the scriptures," he stated.
His party backed him. "People are entitled to hold that view and quote from the scriptures to explain religious objection to it," a spokesman said.
The word abomination occurs in the Book of Leviticus, where the death penalty is proscribed for gay sex, adultery and cursing your parents - among other transgressions.
Mr McLean doesn't agree with such penalties. "We are now under the laws of today," he says.
However, he is convinced that male homosexuality is immoral and should be outlawed. "I believe it should be against the law and dealt with by proper process. I believe it is wrong," he stated, adding: "I was relating a very clear biblical teaching."
But is it really enough in this day and age to say that, because a phrase appears in the Bible, it constitutes acceptable political language?
If you search hard enough in the Bible you will find St Paul stating that husbands should be respected, like Christ, by their wives.
The same Book of Leviticus which calls homosexuality an abomination, allows men more than one wife. It stipulates that "the heathen around you" can be bought and sold as "bondmen and bondmaids" and bequeathed in wills.
"I agree with the total scriptures," Paul McLean said, but felt that such passages were open to interpretation and qualification. But, then, so may the abomination passage.
Politicians should be very careful about using insulting language and should not regard the Bible, or the Koran, or any other ancient book, as carte blanche to overstep the normal bounds of courtesy.
Mr Crawford, who wasn't depending on the Bible for his comments, was able to correct himself, whereas Mr McLean felt bound to defend his comments - though he did express strong opposition to homophobic attacks.
Personal moral standards are primarily just that: standards by which we moderate personal behaviour - not a licence to be offensive about other people. Church and state are separate, so politicians should think twice about using elected positions as pulpits.