I’ve been thinking long and hard about this worrying topic for close to a month now, and I mentioned it briefly in my previous essay. Upon my first hearing, I felt I should abstain somewhat from writing at length on the subject of religious exemption as it seemed to be a surefire non-starter, but as that seems to no longer be the case it seems an appropriate time to tackle this rather dubious bill.
I must begin by saying that after listening to Paul Given’s (the instigator of said bill) interview on the Stephen Nolan Show, I am concerned that his own religious beliefs are intruding somewhat into his objectivity here. I will refrain from going through the entire proposal in this entry but will draw attention to particularly troubling issues. Upon addressing these sensitive issues one must first draw a clear distinction in regards to what this bill is actually trying to achieve. What exactly is Mr Given trying to “amend?”
In his introduction to the bill he claims that this is an ‘enhancement’ to the ‘”Equality Act (Sexual orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006.” Granted he is not proposing an iron clad document that is to say unchangeable, in this instance he is seeking to outline potential room from improvement as he sees it. In the draft Mr Given seeks readers to respond by replying to a questionnaire attached to the pdf, which will then be amended and implanted into the revised draft of the bill.
Throughout the persistent waffle that encompasses 20-30% of this draft proposal there are certain periods of interest. Mr Given cites the classic “Conscientious Objection” cases when referring to ‘different treatment under the law,’ such as ‘military service’, ‘giving of oaths’ and ‘vaccinations.’ This however is a Non sequitur as what we are discussing in this instance is specifically aimed at the pious. This takes us away from the secular realm in which we were previously dwelling into a much more convoluted area.
For the purposes of not boring readers I will try to stay on topic as much as I can. Throughout the document Mr Given frequently refers to ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ strands. This rather vague labelling makes it difficult for the reader to determine who he (Mr Given) is actually referring to at any given time, as both the deeply religious and those who are deemed to be minority demographics (LBGT, Non-believers etc.) both qualify for either ‘strand’.
I found great difficulty in actually trying to deduce what was actually being said in certain large sections of prose, namely: ‘Eroding Space for Difference: Equalities legislation’ which suggest that nothing or very little is actually being said at all. From what I gather here basically what Mr Given is trying to argue is that like laws that are written for the good of the majority (i.e. trading), laws too have been written that are designed to govern the interactions with minorities (i.e. equal rights). It is at this point that Mr Given draws our attention to the undesirable outcomes on the parties in question here and argues that the protection of ‘all’ minorities is the main aim of such differential treatment and that special treatment of one minority over another may fail to uphold the integrity of the act in the first place. With this I do not disagree, but may point out that this is applicable in secular cases as he says himself “good equality law respects and makes space for difference.”
It is at this point however, that I must part from Mr Given as he seeks to use this as a means to push for the main purpose of this bill. The amendment of the exercise of ‘sexual orientation rights in relation to religious rights‘ and that this should qualify as different treatment under the law. This is utterly ridiculous, the separation of church and state is something that has long been contested and here we can see again why. If this bill goes through and becomes legislation, anyone has the state’s blessing to act in a xenophobic and bigoted manner through the weakest of arguments, ‘My religious beliefs.’ Let me be absolutely clear here, I am not by any means attacking people’s personal beliefs, rather I am drawing a clear distinction between what is a case of the church and religious people once again trying to exercise their exemption above others on the basis of the ideology. This in my eyes is not a reasonable argument for a state endorsed legislation. It’s already bad enough that religious establishments already receive charitable status basically automatically and are exempt from taxation.
The bill then gets extremely important and this is where I would like my readers to focus their attention. The draft does not allow religious people to refuse to sell gay people their products as that would be discriminatory, but it will allow them to refuse to engage in a transaction or request that will endorse an act that is in direct violation of their beliefs. The example Mr. Given uses in the bill is that a catholic adoption agency would not be required by law to place a child with a same-sex couple who obviously can’t conceive themselves. This is disgraceful and needs to be met with abhorrence. What kind of intolerant society do we want to live in? One that would allow a woman to die in the case of an ectopic pregnancy as they ‘conscientiously refuse’ to carry out a termination. This brings back the miscarriage case in 2012 of Savita Halappanavar who would still be alive today if not for the act of saving a life being a direct violation of church teaching.
Mr Given makes one clear mistake here, he fails to recognise that this isn’t the innocent respectful bill that it is made out to be, and he is not the champion of the victimized religious minority strands (to use his jargon). I sincerely feel that what this is an attack on western civilisation and the values that make us such an open and free society. Shall we implement Sharia Law for the fundamentalist Muslim population because it their ‘faith identity,’ shall we teach that the world is 6000 years old as it’s faith identity. No! this is absurd and any rational human would not surrender to the religious right lest we end up in a theocratic state like Iran or Saudi Arabia.
Again, the thoughts represented in this brief essay are of my own opinion and any comments or claims represent my views alone. All facts and figures are readily retrievable.
Conor O’ Boyle