Archbishop Eamon Martin writes on behalf of Northern Bishops to the Northern Ireland Equality Commission over treatment by the Belfast Telegraph
The Archbishop of Armagh, Archbishop Eamon Martin, has written to the Northern Ireland Equality Commission seeking its advice and comment over the refusal of the Belfast Telegraph newspaper to publish, as a paid advertisement, the recent statement of the Catholic Northern Bishops in advance of the NI Assembly elections on 2 May 2022. Despite having accepted full payment for the requested statement to be published as an advertisement, the newspaper would not publish the statement unless the bishops made changes to their comments on abortion. The bishops refused to accept this, withdrew their request and asked for their money back. The bishops are now seeking advice over the implications of the newspaper’s decision for the right to religious freedom and equality of treatment for people of faith when accessing services from a commercial organisation.
As details of the letter to the Equality Commission were made public, Archbishop Martin commented, “A commercial newspaper, the Belfast Telegraph, accepted full payment for a service it is obliged to make available to all, on the basis of equal access and equal respect for their religious view. Our advertisement contained the established and widely published position of the Catholic Church on a range of issues. But the paper subsequently refused to publish the advertisement unless the bishops changed what they said about abortion, to the satisfaction of the editor. The refusal to carry the advertisement raises fundamental questions about the equal access of religious groups and people of faith to such commercial services.”
Noting that that another newspaper, The Irish News, carried the advertisement without amendment, Archbishop Martin continued, “From our point of view the situation is a fairly straightforward case of a religious organisation having been refused a commercial service, after payment had been taken, unless the religious organisation was willing to change how its religious message was expressed. We believe it would be helpful for all parties, as well as for other faith groups who may wish to seek a similar commercial service in the future, for us to seek clarification and advice from the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and others about the situation that has arisen. We will consider our next steps when we have received this advice.”
Notes for Editors
The full text of the letter from Archbishop Martin to Dr Evelyn Collins, Chief Executive of the Equality Commission NI, is provided below.
28 July 2022
Dear Dr Collins,
I am writing to you on behalf of my colleagues, the Northern Catholic Bishops, inviting the comment and advice of the Equality Commission on issues we believe are of fundamental importance to equality of treatment and respect for religious freedom, arising from a request we made to the Belfast Telegraph to carry, as a paid advertisement, our widely published pre-NI Assembly election pastoral reflection, Make Your Voices Heard.
As you will see from the attached correspondence, the Belfast Telegraph initially accepted full payment for the requested advertisement, only to subsequently refuse to carry it unless a number of amendments to the long-established religious opinion held by the Catholic Church, in the statement, were made to the satisfaction of the newspaper’s editor. When we refused to make the
requested changes to our religious opinion, to accommodate the opinion of the editor, our payment was returned. It is important to note that another newspaper, The Irish News, did accept and publish the advertisement, without amendment.
We understand that it is not within the remit of the Equality Commission to pursue legal cases on behalf of groups, as opposed to individuals, and we wish to make it clear that, while we are seeking our own legal advice on the issues concerned, this is not our purpose in writing to you.
Rather, given the fundamental nature of the human rights and equality issues this case has given rise to, as well as its wider implications for the participation of faith-based groups in public life and the right of faith-based groups to fair and equal access to commercial services, we would ask if the Equality Commission could offer its comment and/or advice on the following questions specifically:
- Do you agree that commercial organisations providing paid advertising services have an obligation to offer those services to individuals, and groups, on the basis of equality and without discrimination on the basis of the religious views of the individual or group seeking these services?
- What guidance does, or can the Equality Commission offer, to commercial organisations providing advertising services in respect to refusing to carry such advertisements on the basis of the religious opinion expressed, where such an advertisement satisfies all other statutory advertising requirements?
We believe there are many in the Catholic community, and in other faith-based communities, who are deeply concerned about the decision of the Belfast Telegraph to refuse to carry our paid-for advertisement without amendment. On the face of it, it would appear we were refused a commercial service on the basis of our well-established, and widely published, religious opinion. For this reason, we believe it is important that we engage the various statutory agencies with a responsibility for providing guidance to commercial and public bodies on such matters, in a public discussion on the principles and rights involved. To that end, it is our intention to make it public that we are seeking the comment and advice of the Equality Commission on the situation that has arisen.
If you believe it would be helpful at any point to meet with me and some of our representatives to discuss the issues and circumstances giving rise to them, in more detail, please do not hesitate to let me know.
With every good wish,
Archbishop of Armagh
For media contact: Catholic Communications Office Maynooth: Martin Long +353 (0) 86 172 7678 and Lisa Sheridan +353 (0) 86 084 3175.