Stones, motes, planks

Paul Girvan, a DUP politician in Northern Ireland, wants to introduce a religious conscience clause so that individuals would not have to offer goods and services to people which offend their religious convictions.  This arose from the case where the Equality Commission is suing a baker who refused, on religious grounds, to sell a cake endorsing same sex marriage.  (Less reported, Paul is also trying to ensure that adoption and fostering agencies don’t have to help same sex couples.)

Where the law is drawn respecting individual conscience is always a sticky one.  Quakers fought long and hard for the right not to be compelled to serve in wars.  Some Quakers now want the right to divert taxes used for war purposes to peaceful state ends.   The UK resists compulsory vaccination, even though not being vaccinated puts other people at risk.  (Most baby deaths from pertussis come because those in contact with the baby old enough to be immunised haven’t been).  The law allows some staff directly involved to refuse to carry out an abortion but, the courts have held, not the midwives involved.

Paul Girvan’s bill however seems problematic for a number of reasons.  Firstly he requires that conscience can only be exercised if based on strongly held religious conviction.  In a secular society, why should deeply held views only be respected if they are religious, and who defines religious?  (Many people insist that religion requires belief in a supreme being, which means Jains, Buddhists, and plenty of other people aren’t ‘religious’.  The courts so held until recently.)  If you let Muslim nurses wear headscarves, you have to allow, at least in theory, other people to do so, if they want to enough.

Secondly, Paul understands how ridiculous it would be to allow a greengrocer not to sell apples to a gay couple.  (His consultation document gives three examples, all of which refer to same sex relationships.  It is quite clear this is the only conscience issue he is interested in.   He says the exemption is only to allow people to

“avoid endorsing, promoting or facilitating behaviour or beliefs which conflict
with … strongly held religious convictions”

This would allow lawyers, estate agents and bank staff not to cooperate in a gay couple buying a house to cohabit, for example.  It would allow the owner of a business to create a policy binding all their staff, even if the staff’s convictions were not troubled.  Does this apply to unmarried couples?  What about couples who have divorced and remarried – many Protestants and Catholics alike believe they are adulterers.  Which commandments are important enough to judge people as sinful?  How about selling a gay man a railway ticket knowing he will use it to visit his boyfriend?

Some people believe women are inferior to men.  Female employment or leadership might conflict with that conviction.  Many people used to think mixed race relationships are wrong.

In the particular context of Northern Ireland, it seems a host of claims could be generated by those who want to harass different religious or political bodies.  ”It offends my religious views to serve Martin McGuinness, it offends mine to serve Paul Girvan… etc etc”  In the US a group of Satanists now demand the right to circulate literature in schools, display statues on courthouse lawns, and yes, exercise their consciences to disobey state laws on abortion they believe restrict a woman’s right to choose.   They’re satirists, but willing to go to court to make the point.

I think picking a fight over  a cake is unfortunate.  I understand a B and B owner feels it is their home and should be different from a hotel.  The difficulty comes in drafting a clause that will not generate a litigious hell.

Jesus suggested we didn’t judge.  Can I judge people for being judgmental?  Could they then judge me?

What about assisted dying?  What about abortion (still illegal in Northern Ireland)?  What about strongly held religious convictions in favour of them?


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