Belfast Telegraph

Naomi Long: Judgment does not provide an excuse for discrimination

Naomi Long, leader of the Alliance Party

Alliance is a party of human rights and equality, and always has been. We believe those protections should reinforce each other.

Fundamentally, equality protections are there for good reason - to ensure respect and inclusion for all, and to avoid direct or indirect discrimination.

The state has a duty to ensure non-discrimination across all equality grounds, including political opinion, religious belief and sexual orientation, while respecting everyone's right to freedom of religion and belief and freedom of expression.

Balancing protection from discrimination with freedom of expression is a challenge. Where tensions arise, we must reflect on how to ensure rights and equality protections can better interact, such as in light of the decision of yesterday's Supreme Court ruling in respect of Ashers Bakery.

Discrimination against members of the LGBT+ community sadly remains a problem in our society. This goes well beyond the failure to legislate for equal marriage, as important as that issue is.

We also lack a comprehensive sexual orientation strategy and, given yesterday's Supreme Court judgment was handed down on World Mental Health Day, it is worth mentioning the startling statistic that over 70% of LGBT+ people in Northern Ireland have experienced mental health issues, much of that linked to alienation, discrimination and bullying in society.

Recognition must be given to the fact that freedom of religion does not clash with LGBT+ rights - many people from all faiths and none understand the importance of equality and practice it, while many members of the LGBT+ community are also members of faith communities.

In addition, the right to freedom of religion and belief must include the right to freedom from religion, something often neglected in the discussion.

Alliance's preference was this case not to go to court but rather be resolved through mediation.

However, we respect the right of the Equality Commission to take this case, and we recognise there was significant public interest issues at its heart fuelling that decision.

The attacks on the Equality Commission from some quarters are as sad as they are predictable.

The Equality Commission, and its sister organisation, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, are bodies proposed in the Good Friday Agreement tasked with protecting and enhancing our human rights and equality protections.

They also have vital roles in keeping law and practice under review, in advocacy for the highest standards of rights protections and, most pertinently in this context, taking important test cases to ensure abuses are tackled and to clarify the law.

In short, they are there to protect us all and it is crucial they are given support from all quarters and all parties.

The Supreme Court judgment in the Ashers case is significant, with a number of implications arising from it. Nevertheless, it must be stressed the judgment concerns a specific, complicated case and relates to a limited and particular context, so great care should be taken in drawing wider conclusions.

There will nevertheless be many people concerned about the apparent erosion of their rights and dignity as a result of it.

It is therefore important to be clear it does not give carte blanche for businesses to set aside their equality responsibilities or provide an excuse for discrimination.

Equality protections and duties remain in place and the law remains clear - it is illegal for any provider of goods, facilities and services, regardless of any personal opinions, to discriminate against any person or persons based on the full spectrum of equality grounds specified in Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

What it certainly does not do is create a de facto 'conscience clause' and Alliance remains resolutely opposed to any such exemption, either through the back door or via legislation.

It does, however, require a discussion as to how we better manage such perceived conflicts in rights while preserving the dignity of all involved, and furthering equality and human rights for everyone.

Naomi Long is leader of the Alliance Party

Belfast Telegraph

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