Christians 'discriminated against'
Christians are being unfairly discriminated against by Northern Ireland's current laws, a senior Catholic clergyman has claimed.
Bishop Noel Treanor was at Stormont to discuss the so-called conscience clause Bill which would allow businesses to refuse some services because of deeply held religious beliefs.
He said: "It is important that our politicians accept there is a real problem here that needs to be addressed.
"Our laws as they stand are having an unjust and disproportionate impact on those of religious faith."
The Bishop of Down and Connor met a DUP delegation including First Minister Peter Robinson and Lagan Valley MLA Paul Givan at Parliament Buildings.
Mr Givan is seeking to bring forward a Private Member's Bill which would introduce a conscience clause into equality legislation after legal action was taken against a Christian-owned bakery.
The Equality Commission brought the civil case against Ashers Baking Company after it refused to bake a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan.
Bishop Treanor added: "Is it acceptable in a genuinely just, tolerant and pluralist society that one group are threatened with fines, imprisonment, losing their business or job, or in the case of the Catholic Church, losing public funding for long-established adoption agencies and other charitable services that we provide, in the name of providing equality for another group?
"It is as if we have swapped one form of discrimination for another.
"Is it just to have a situation where one group of people are told 'you are out' of a particular business or 'you need not apply' for a particular job or that 'you may not apply for public funds', simply because they hold the perfectly rational belief that marriage is between a woman and a man and that sexual relationships are reserved in their dignity and purpose for this form of married relationship?
"The truth is that such prejudice and discrimination against any other category of people in our society would not be tolerated and public representatives have a responsibility to ensure that discrimination against those with perfectly rational religious views will not be tolerated either."
Sinn Fein has said it will block the Bill when it comes before the Assembly.
South Down MLA Catriona Ruane claimed her party would be supported by the Green Party's Steven Agnew and Basil McCrea from NI21 in deploying a petition of concern which means the conscience clause Bill would not pass without cross-community support.
Deirdre O'Rawe, a lay member of the Northern Ireland Catholic Council on Social Affairs, was also at the meeting with the DUP.
She said the church did not want any legislative change which would lead to unfair discrimination against any individual.
Mrs O'Rawe said: "Any change to the law in this area has to be very carefully defined so that people cannot use transient, superficial or spurious claims of religious conscience as an excuse for discrimination.
"While we support the general objective behind the proposed freedom of conscience amendment Bill, we believe it needs to be very carefully assessed to ensure it does not create exceptions to goods and services legislation that are too wide."