Outside the GPO last Sunday hundreds turned out to commemorate the beginning of Amnesty Ireland’s “Let’s Make History” campaign calling for a Yes vote in the upcoming referendum on Same Sex Marriage. Among the arguments made by the speakers at the event was the claim that supporting the referendum was the true “family values” position, as to vote Yes was to stick up for mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and any other person who was in a same-sex relationship. One elderly couple told those gathered that they felt that they could not, as Roman Catholics, vote no to the referendum because they felt that was against the spirit of their religion teachings.
However, much of the conversation surrounding the event and indeed the referendum was on the general positioning of those from a religious background against the referendum. Campaigners handing out flyers before the event claimed that the referendum would be a welcome step towards the separation of church and state in this country. Therefore it was fitting that so much of the news coverage from that morning was centred on calls for a “Conscience Clause” to be entered into the state’s law, whereby those from a religious background would be free to object to issues which they felt were contrary to their faith, without being subject to any punishment for breaking the law. Essentially, one’s religion would make some laws no longer apply.
Among those calling for such a change is Catholic Archbishop for Dublin Diarmuid Martin, who was quoted by the Sunday Times this weekend as having claimed that the right for religious institutions to refuse to recognise a couple’s marriage should apply to individuals too: “What is that saying? It’s saying, yes, there is a conscientious question and we respect the conscience of a priest. But what about the lay Christian in the same difficulties – does he not have the freedom of conscience?” Mr. Martin was speaking at an event organised by the Iona Institute, a group that has been heavily associated with the No side of the same-sex marriage referendum. His comments have attracted criticisms from prominent LGBT activists for putting the right to religious freedom ahead of the rights of gay, lesbian and bisexual Irish citizens.
Over the last year there have been a small but high profile number of instances where different companies have been unwilling to do business with gay customers because they felt that their requests clashed with the religious beliefs of the organisation in question. One notable case was that of Beulah Print in Drogheda, who refused to design wedding invitations to a customer of four years because the owners of the business did not believe in civil partnerships, as they were “Bible-believing Christians”. Beulah Print stated in the aftermath that “We have never hidden our faith from our customers and represent the gospel at every opportunity. We are not against homosexuals however, we do not support same sex marriage, which printing wedding invitations would do”. This mirrors a similar case from Dublin two years prior where a stationary shop removed a wedding cake topper that feature two men holding hands, as the owner refused to promote same-sex marriage.
This issue has also been contentious north of the border, where the Northern Ireland’s Equality Commission’s decision to fine a bakery that refused to make a cake supporting marriage equality is being challenged in court. The Democratic Unionist Party, the country’s largest party, supports the introduction of a conscience clause, and has been facing criticism in several sectors for this view, with accusations from Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Green Party and the Alliance Party that they are legislating in favour of inequality and giving individuals the legal protection to discriminate. The move has also faced criticism from NGOs such as Amnesty International and The Rainbow Project. While the issue has appeared to lose steam in recent weeks, any attempts to bring in such a law in the South would have consequences in Northern Ireland.