by Keava O’Loan
With the Marriage Equality referendum set to take place on May 22nd, LGBT rights have never been more at the forefront of public attention. Unfortunately, as the Republic of Ireland seems to be taking a step forward, the opposite is true North of the border.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland has proposed a motion to add an ‘anti-gay clause’ to equality laws, allowing businesses to refuse service to gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, simply on the basis of their sexual orientation.
DUP MLA Paul Givan proposed the motion after a lawsuit involving Ashers Bakery was brought to public attention. The owners of the bakery, devout Christians Colin and Karen McArthur, refused to bake a cake for Queerspace, a gay rights campaign group. The McArthurs said that the cake, which was to be iced with the message ‘Support Gay Marriage’, opposed their religious beliefs. The Equality Commission, which has taken the case against the business on behalf of Queerspace, alleges that the bakery’s stance is in breach of equality legislation. Givan said he believes this is wrong and wants the law to be ‘rebalanced’.
The ‘conscience clause’, as the DUP have named it, has gained the support of the Catholic Church. Although the relationship between the strongly Unionist DUP and the Catholic Church has been famously tumultuous, the two groups have become unlikely allies; both strongly opposing gay marriage and abortion. Givan is currently carrying out a public consultation into a Private Member’s Bill, before they bring the conscience clause into debate at Stormont. This consultation welcomes feedback from the public on the draft bill, with responses to be submitted no later than 5pm, Friday 27th of February.
Sinn Féin have said they would use a petition of concern – essentially a vote which requires that the bill has cross-community support before it can be passed – to halt the proposed amendment as soon as it is brought before the Assembly. A petition of concern requires the support of at least thirty MLAs; and with Sinn Féin’s twenty-eight MLAs, plus the additional support of the Green Party’s Steven Agnew and Basil McCrea of NI21, they have reached the number required to halt the conscience clause bill.
Although the bill is effectively dead in the water, it will still go to vote. A greater public response could be the push needed to ensure more Assembly Members vote for equality, and to prevent the future proposition of anti-gay legislation. A petition has been started to show public opposition to the bill. If you believe in equality for all, regardless of sexual orientation, please sign the petition.