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No bye-ball for Christians under the law

Are religious people the only ones in our society with consciences and principles? Or are religious views just privileged above others?

Paul Givan hasn't let the grass grow under his feet since being co-opted on to the Assembly for Lagan Valley in 2010. He was elected the next year and since then he has pursued a range of issues mainly on the justice committee and mainly to do with issues of sexual morality.

Now he has taken up the Ashers cake case, where a bakery owned by Christians is facing prosecution by the Equality Commission for cancelling an order for a cake with the logo 'Support Gay Marriage'.

Mr Givan intends bringing a Private Member's Bill allowing a conscience opt out clause for "people of faith", as he puts it, or "people with strongly held religious beliefs", as his party leader, Peter Robinson, put it.

We should be able to practise religion freely, but does that extend to being allowed to opt out of our legal obligations on religious grounds? The Bible didn't generally think so. For instance, Christ commanded his disciples to "give to Caesar what is Caesar's", an admonition to obey the laws of the state and do what they required, even the Roman Empire, which was pagan at that time.

But what about people who are not religious? Should the conscience of loyalists, environmentalists, vegetarians, atheists and humanists also be protected? Where do you draw the line? Can people start a church, draw up its teachings and then demand that they allowed to pursue them?

Look forward to a string of cases claiming cannabis or some other drug is a sacrament. And will we be bound to respect the consciences of religious groups who want to practise taking multiple spouses or marrying people below our legal age of consent? What if someone believes another racial or religious group are unclean and refuses to employ them?

Will we have to have teams of experts poring over old religious books to see if they are being correctly interpreted?

Freedom of conscience is one of those principles most of us agree with instinctively. Putting it into law is a different matter.

Everyone likes to exercise their conscience and sometimes you have to take a stance for what you believe even in defiance of authority. Courts have discretion in those circumstances, but legalising whatever people feel strongly about is a different matter.

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