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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