Presbyterian Church stops short of endorsing but supports principle of “conscience” bill, calls for reasonable accommodation & debate

Yesterday, Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor Noel Treanor was part of a delegation that met Paul Givan and others in the DUP to discuss the “Conscience Clause” Private Members Bill.

PCI logoTonight the Presbyterian Church’s Council for Church in Society (the body within the denomination authorised to deliberate and speak on matters of public policy) has published their 22-point response to the consultation. The full text and accompanying statement is on the denomination’s website.

The Council’s document is broadly in support of the principles behind the Northern Ireland Freedom of Conscience Amendment Bill, but they stop short of “fully supporting” or “welcoming” it as it stands. Within their response are calls for clarification around the constrained nature of the bill (which singles out “core beliefs and values” about sexual orientation to the exclusion of others “such as marital status”.

The denomination says that it is “fully supportive of having legislation that upholds the core Christian principle that all people are created with equal value and worth, and therefore no one should be treated as a second-class citizen” while also upholding “the importance of freedom of conscience, which is, at its core, about distinguishing between what is morally right and morally wrong, and one’s ability to act in accordance with those judgements”.

Current law “does not appropriately value the role of conscience and the freedom to manifest one’s beliefs in the public square”. “Achieving an informed and gracious discussion about these matters is very difficult [but] nevertheless, we believe it is essential”.

1.5 We are disappointed by the lack of significant public debate about the role of conscience in a diverse and pluralist society. We believe that the Equality Commission should help to facilitate this discussion.

The Council “support in principle the objective of finding a better approach to the balancing of rights in relation to the provision of goods, facilities and services”. However they call for “societal discussion about freedom of conscience” in light of issues that are not included in the current draft bill, for example “the rights of employees to manifest their religious beliefs in the workplace”.

They note that the “Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has recently recognised that ‘expression of faith is sometimes unduly limited by national legislation and policies’ and has called on member States to ‘promote reasonable accommodation…to enable Christians to fully participate in public life’” and suggest that case law in Canada and elsewhere may provide templates to help legislative change to develop “the concept of reasonable accommodation” in law.

Specifically addressing faith-based voluntary adoption and fostering agencies, the denomination asserts that “the best interests of children must have primacy in these matters over the wishes of those who would like to adopt or foster” but notes that “many who are involved in the voluntary sector are dedicated to working for the common good because of their faith and conscience”.

Overall they “support in principle the objective of the proposed amendment to allow faith-based voluntary adoption and fostering agencies to operate in accordance with core religious beliefs and values” but note that discussions about freedom of conscience must be wider than exemptions on the ground of sexual orientation and take in other “core beliefs and values … such as marital status”.

2.7 This issue highlights the need for the state to reasonably accommodate a much wider group of interests within society. The conditions created by equality legislation should not make conscience an obstacle to working for the public good.

2.8 Reasonable accommodation in law for faith-based adoption and fostering agencies would facilitate greater diversity and choice of providers, allowing the many adoptive and foster parents who would value the support of an agency with a particular ethos to access services within the framework of their religious beliefs. We believe that equity and justice would be better served by such an approach.

Addressing businesses PCI’s Council for Church in Society believes “that a state does not act with respect for personal freedoms and diversity, or properly value liberty, justice and dignity, if it requires citizens, whether they are acting in a commercial capacity or not, to produce material which directly conflicts with their core beliefs and values”.

While there is “support in principle for the proposed amendment”, the response has “concerns” about “possible unintended consequences of the draft legislation”.

3.4 We note that by focusing exclusively on the Sexual Orientation Regulations, the draft Bill would not address issues in other areas that may come into direct conflict with core religious beliefs, such as certain campaigns and causes. We would welcome clarification on why the draft legislation was formulated with limited scope in this respect.

3.5 We also note that the proposed amendment only applies to those whose sole or main purpose is commercial. We would welcome clarification on the intention behind this restriction.

They conclude that “a respectful, thoughtful and comprehensive discussion is required within society about how we might develop reasonable accommodation, to find a better approach to balancing competing rights”.

The consultation response neither endorses nor rejects Paul Givan’s Private Members Bill. Its tone is measured, though having declared at the start that “all people are created with equal value and worth” the document completely fails to address the bill from the perspective of someone who would be denied the “provision of goods, facilities and services” due to someone else exercising their freedom of conscience. After all, gay Presbyterians could be negatively affected by this draft bill if was ever to become law – something the Council’s response writers seemed to overlook.

While calling for public debate and discussion about freedom of conscience, the response does not scold the author of the Private Members Bill for producing a knee-jerk draft before initiating a wider public debate (prior to the current consultation).

The response also fails to comment on whether all religious beliefs and values (including ones from non-Christian faith groups) are in equal need of protection, and what makes them “core”.

The consultation response is likely to be a compromise position between the small sub-group who produced the response on behalf of the 33 member Council. While the document starts by highlighting that the Presbyterian Church has “240,000 members belonging to 545 congregations across 19 Presbyteries throughout Ireland, north and south” it does not go on to even allude to any diversity of opinion across the denomination (never mind across the full Council of 20 ministers, 10 or so elders, with an overall gender balance of 5:1 male:female).

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  • notimetoshine

    “fully supportive of having legislation that upholds the core Christian principle that all people are created with equal value and worth, and therefore no one should be treated as a second-class citizen”

    Thats rich. Doesn’t seem to take much to tie these church types up in knots.

    Also I am very concerned that the conscience clause won’t cover my own particular religious beliefs. Based on bible sources I feel that it is my inalienable right supported within my faith to hold slaves, to treat women as inferiors and to stay away from unclean menstrating women. Where is the protection for my beliefs?

  • James Martin

    As per usual, very astute analysis from Alan in Belfast. It seems to me that they have played this with political savvy. I suspect that Alan is well aware as to why the church did not “scold” Paul Givan- politically to do so would be incredibly foolish on the part of the church considering the fact that the DUP are the biggest party in NI and are likely (though not for definite of course) to remain so for the forseeable future. They also realised that this is a consultation process and that the legislation itself in the document was not set in stone- for many, this seems to have been a nuance too far, which I don’t blame folks for considering that many don’t follow the ins and outs of political process.

    Add that to the fact that they feel that there is a genuine issue arising here which again and again is being ignored or, if noted, castigated: that many individuals of faith feel that they are being marginalised for holding to traditional Christian ethics with regard to sexuality. The Ashers case is a symptom of that.

    It strikes me, and perhaps Alan would agree, that this debate has been taken over by understandable (although perhaps not justifiable) fear on both sides. As in most political debates, the reality is more complex than simply two sides, but for the sake of clarity I will generalise here. LGB and T individuals are understandably scared of losing long fought for rights which has been underscored by responses from groups such as the Rainbow Project and the Equality Commission. For many in this community, it seems to me, simply want to live their lives in peace and they are scared of what this process may lead to.

    On the other side, there are Christians (and probably some others in other faith communities) who feel that they are no longer allowed to be authentic to views that they hold about human sexuality. Many feel that they are no longer being asked simply to tolerate same-sex practice, but are actively being forced into affirming something that they believe to be morally wrong. This is the reason why the Ashers case has caught fire in the Christian community: many Christians see that situation as being one where Ashers are being threatened for holding to their sincerely held moral views rooted in Christian teaching.

    The unfortunate consequence of a fear driven debate like this (as we have seen time and again in this country) is that it quickly descends into abuse and “othering” of individuals who hold sincere views. It seems to me that this debate has exploded and got out of hand very quickly which I would not imagine was the sponsors intention when he started this process.

    For what it is worth, the PCI response seemed to me to be a nuanced, intelligent piece of work which sought to engage in the process calmly and rationally. This debate however has for many moved from that realm to the point where it is being driven by fear and rage.

    But good job Alan here- keep up the good work in the blogosphere.

  • Jay

    I too feel discrimanted against. My teachings tell me that Iris should have been stoned to death many years ago. Yet she walks around a free women! What about my beliefs?

  • aber1991

    Are you trying to be clever? Please compare like with like. You and your fellow travellers are trying to impose your political correctness fascism on Christians.

  • notimetoshine

    No not really just exposing the hypocrisy of these people. I strongly feel based on my biblical beliefs that a menstrating woman is unclean. Should I not be able to refuse her service?

  • chrisjones2

    The last time I saw the FM he also seem to be wearing a suit of mixed fibres. That is an abomination unto the Lord!

  • David

    It does need to be said that the opposition to homosexuality from a religious standpoint is merely a figleaf for homophobia.

    The other examples given here regarding menstruation, clothing of mixed fibres and adultery are equally valid, but conveniently ignored by religionists.

    There is no logical reason why consenting gay adults should be denied the same rights as everyone else, so certain religionists use the illogical reason that cherry picking a few extracts from an ancient text somehow trumps common sense.

    I would say to all religionists and non-believers, be homophobic if you wish, but at least have the courage to admit it.