Christian Institute prosecution fears over same-sex marriage ceremonies
A leading Christian charity has warned that Church ministers could face prosecution if they refuse to carry out same-sex marriages when they become legal in Northern Ireland this year.
The intervention by the Christian Institute (CI) comes after it commissioned public law specialist Ivan Hare QC to review the legislation.
In a legal opinion published today from Mr Hare, he argues that bespoke protections "must be put in place immediately" ahead of the new marriage law coming into force by January 13.
The legal opinion - which has also been sent to Northern Ireland Secretary of State Julian Smith - argues that religious ministers who oppose same-sex marriage in sermons or debates could potentially be prosecuted under current hate crime laws.
Warning that Mr Smith could face a judicial review challenge unless protections are put in place, the QC argues that as things stand the threshold for incitement to hatred offences here is "substantially lower" than in England and Wales, meaning "free speech in NI is more vulnerable to infringement".
He also advises that, in his view, "measured criticism of the sexual conduct or practices of certain groups based on sincerely held religious convictions" does not violate any aspect of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
In the legal note, Mr Hare said: "I consider that speech which involves the articulation of sincerely held Christian beliefs concerning marriage and homosexual conduct and practices to be at the core of protected expression under the ECHR.
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"At the time of the introduction of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, many believers from a number of faiths will be seeking guidance from their religious leaders as to the compatibility of the reform with their fundamental beliefs."
Simon Calvert from the CI added: "We don't want the police using public order law to try to punish ministers for preaching the Bible. It must be a free debate and a free-flowing exchange of ideas, not a spectacle involving people being arrested. Even if these arrests never lead to a prosecution, the chilling effect would be huge."
However, Patrick Corrigan, NI director of Amnesty International and part of the Love Equality campaign, said: "There are already clear protections in Northern Ireland law for freedom of expression and these will not be affected by the introduction of marriage equality.
"Religious ministers and others will continue to be free to express their personal or religiously inspired views on the matter of same-sex marriage, whether in favour or opposed, just as on other topics. No church or faith group should be compelled to conduct same-sex marriages and no church or faith group should be prevented from conducting such weddings.
"We would like to see all changes implemented by the January 13 deadline set down in the law. However, it is clear that the Northern Ireland Office plans to run a short public consultation on the issue of religious weddings before making the necessary regulatory changes.
"At the end of that process, we fully expect to see rights and protections in Northern Ireland equivalent to those already available elsewhere in the UK."