At the invitation of Mr Paul Givan MLA (DUP), and as part of the consultation process in respect of his private members Freedom of Conscience Amendment Bill, a delegation from the Northern Ireland Catholic Council for Social Affairs (NICCOSA), led by Bishop of Down and Connor, Most Rev Noel Treanor, met with a delegation of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast, today led by First Minister of Northern Ireland, Mr Peter Robinson MLA (DUP). The NICCOSA delegation also included Dr Nicola Brady, research coordinator with the Council for Justice and Peace of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference; Mrs Deidre O’Rawe, regional director of ACCORD Catholic Marriage Care Service NI; and, Father Timothy Bartlett, Secretary to the Catholic Bishops of Northern Ireland.
Immediately following the meeting with the DUP, the delegation from NICCOSA met with representatives of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), including Party Leader, Dr Alasdair McDonnell MLA, MP. NICCOSA intends to have meetings with the other Northern Ireland political parties over coming weeks to discuss the proposed Freedom of Conscience Amendment Bill and other issues.
Speaking after the meetings, Bishop Treanor said, “As part of the democratic process, we are glad to take the opportunity to discuss with our legislators, in a calm and respectful manner, how to find a more just and reasonable accommodation for religious belief when conflicts between goods and services legislation and freedom of conscience arise. It is important that our politicians accept there is a real problem here that needs to be addressed. Our laws as they stand are having an unjust and disproportionate impact on those of religious faith. It is important that they don’t just ignore the situation but seek ways of addressing it and of giving greater recognition to freedom of conscience and religion as a fundamental human right and a cornerstone of a diverse and pluralist society.”
Bishop Treanor continued, “Is it acceptable in a genuinely just, tolerant and pluralist society that one group are threatened with fines, imprisonment, losing their business or job, or in the case of the Catholic Church, losing public funding for long established adoption agencies and other charitable services that we provide, in the name of providing equality for another group? It is as if we have swapped one form of discrimination for another! Is it just to have a situation where one group of people are told ‘you are out’ of a particular business or ‘you need not apply’ for a particular job or that ‘you may not apply for public funds’, simply because they hold the perfectly rational belief that marriage is between a woman and a man, and that sexual relationships are reserved in their dignity and purpose for this form of married relationship? The truth is that such prejudice and discrimination against any other category of people in our society would not be tolerated and public representatives have a responsibility to ensure that discrimination against those with perfectly rational religious views will not be tolerated either.”
Mrs Deirdre O’Rawe said, “We do not want to see any change to the law that would lead to unfair discrimination against any individual or community. That would be contrary to our Christian beliefs. Any change to the law in this area has to be very carefully defined so that people cannot use transient, superficial or spurious claims of religious conscience as an excuse for discrimination. While we support the general objective behind the proposed Freedom of Conscience Amendment Bill we believe it needs to be very carefully assessed to ensure it does not create exceptions to goods and services legislation that are too wide.”
Dr Nicola Brady said, “It is possible for our legislators to find the right balance in this area. In our meetings today we stressed the need for people from different perspectives to work together to build a more compassionate and caring society in which every individual and community can flourish. We also spoke about the need for a calm and mutually respectful debate in all of this, where we listen carefully to each other and try to understand each other. That is part of our Christian faith too.”
Notes to Editors
- The Northern Ireland Catholic Council on Social Affairs is the Northern Ireland sub-committee of the Council for Justice and Peace of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference. With a membership of mostly lay Catholics with relevant experience and expertise, NICCOSA provides advice and support to the bishops of Northern Ireland on social, legal and political issues.
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