Northern Ireland: DUP to introduce bill to exempt religious people from equality laws

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A DUP politician in Northern Ireland has unveiled plans to introduce a ‘conscience clause’ – which would allow religious people to ignore equality laws and discriminate against gays.

Asher’s Baking Company made headlines this year when it refused the request of a gay rights activist for a cake showing the message ‘Support Gay Marriage’, above an image of Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie.

The Equality Commission has since stated that this act broke anti-discrimination laws – but the bakery says it will make a stand for its ‘Christian’ principles.

Today, MLA Paul Givan has pledged to introduce a private member’s bill which would effectively void parts of equality laws – by allowing religious people freedom to discriminate against gays based on their ‘conscience’.

He said: “This clause will enhance equality legislation.

“Equality is about ensuring that everybody in society is allowed to live out their lives.

“We now are heading towards a community where it’s not just about live and let live – people are now saying, ‘you need to affirm my particular lifestyle and if that goes against your conscience, you have to do that’.

“That’s not equality; that’s intolerance.”

He has the backing of First Minister Peter Robinson, who told delegates at the DUP conference: “I have become increasingly alarmed at the uneven pitch upon which rights and equality issues are played out. More and more the balance is tipped against people of faith.

“This has been recently demonstrated by the treatment meted out to the Ashers Baking Company.

“I believe in freedom of conscience. There will often be competing rights and freedoms but, nobody should be compelled or coerced into supporting, sanctioning or promoting views or opinions which conflict with their strongly held religious convictions.”

“The publicly-funded Equality Commission has launched an unjustified attack on a small Christian family business. This is simply bullying.

“I contend that the Equality Commission is seeking to use the Ashers case to add a further layer of restrictions on Christian behaviour and practice.

In an unprecedented move, Mr Robinson also called for DUP members to come forward to contribute to the bakery’s legal costs.

Mr Givan is expected to shortly introduce a consultation on introducing a ‘conscience clause’ provision.

Northern Ireland already lags far behind the rest of the UK on equality measures – banning same-sex marriage and refusing to lift the lifetime ban on gay men giving blood.