Sunday, 23 November 2014

Girvan's Conscience Clause

Paul Girvan MLA has said he is planning to bring forward a private members bill to introduce a conscience clause into Northern Ireland legislation, saying that it will enhance "equality legislation".

He goes on to say:

"Equality is about ensuring that everybody in society is allowed to live out their lives.
"We now are heading towards a community where it's not just about live and let live - people are now saying, 'you need to affirm my particular lifestyle and if that goes against your conscience, you have to do that'.
"That's not equality; that's intolerance."
Now the word affirm means:
  1. To declare positively or firmly, maintain to be true
  2. To support or uphold the validity of, confirm
This is obviously a knee-jerk reaction to the Ashers case, because Girvan goes on to say that introducing this Bill will avoid other similar legal cases. But in Northern Ireland that is also the role that is served by case law, it sets the precedent and determines the boundaries of existing laws. 

Concerning of course is that once again, as with most homophobic legislation, it reduces being LGBT to a lifestyle, therefore implying it is a choice. We don't call being Chinese a lifestyle or being disabled a lifestyle yet these are among the other groups that are covered by equality legislation.

Polygamy is a lifestyle which you can legislate either against or for: being LGBT is not. Of course there is the matter that some argue that the Ashers cake is not about the fact that it was an LGBT customer, but supporting a LGBT campaign. The case law from the Equality Commission will set out to determine if this is indirect discrimination of LGBT people or merely refusing a political message. That is a fine line and a grey area that needs to be established independently and not by politicians with personal conflicts of interest.

What would happen if the conscience clause does come into being? Looking at the way that Girvan's statement is worded and the way similar laws have operated in the Sourthern United States some Christian business owners will start to refuse to serve any obvious LGBT couples or people, because in the words of Girvan "they no longer have to affirm that particular lifestyle."

That Mr Girvan is not equality, that is actually intolerance.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

A simple choice says Peter

"Flag-lowering, parade-stopping, gay marriage supporting, pro-water charging, holier than thou Alliance Party".

Was the recommendation that Peter Robinson made of the Alliance Party in his speech this afternoon, so let me take those epithets that raised raucous applause from the small minded, one directioned, homophobic, financially irresponsible, holier than God himself DUP delgates found so humourous and look at them one by one.

Flag lowering: Whilst this relates to Belfast City Council, for Derry City Council and many of the councils to the West of the Bann the Alliance Party policy on flying the Union Flag on designated days is actually a flag raising policy. Yes it is one that Sinn Féin and the SDLP need some work on to see it as being fair to the minority of unionists who live in the council areas that they live in. Some of those Unionists undoubtedly vote DUP but haven't seen the Union Flag fly from their civic buildings for years. Therefore where is the DUP call for the flag to fly on all public buildings to mark the Royal Birthdays, the Queen's Coronation Day etc? Of course designated days is what happens in most council areas in Great Britain, indeed some fly other flags Orkney flies the Norwegian Flag on Norway Day, and many the Rainbow flag for Pride.

So make that Flag Raising or Flag Equality

Parade stopping: No doubt refers to the Twadell Avenue stand off, but it was the Parade's Commission as voted for by 71% of the Northern Irish people in response to the Belfast Agreement who decided that one final part of their parade home on the Twelve in 2013 should not go past a parade of shops in a nationalist area. This was based on previous violence in the area from both sides over previous parades. The DUP of course are supporting the cost of policing the ongoing action there  in hundreds of thousands of pounds, while the PSNI this week announced some cuts to manning of police stations to try and meet budget constraints on top of suspending historical enquiry work.

So make that Police Supporting and People Respecting.

Gay Marriage Supporting: Of course marriage equality is not just about the gays (and lesbians), it also affects the bisexuals and those who are transgender and intersex. But then when you are used to attcking just the G of the LGBT+ spectrum you can't be expected to know the details of some of my potential partners I an marry but others I cannot, spousal vetoes and stolen years of "togetherness". Nor does it allow those faith groups that want to carry out same-sex marriages the same rights as their brethren in England, Wales and very soon Scotland. Of course when you defend the union and attack LGBT+ equality on a par with the rest of the Kingdom you make a certain section second class citizens in their own land.

So make that Equal Marriage Supporting or just Equality Supporting.

Pro-Water Charging: Water charging is just one possible way to increase government income. We do have a failing water and sewage provision infrastructure which needs a sizeable amount of work and replacement. One way this is funding in England, Wales and Scotland is through the water charge component in the council tax. So yeah while we have a financial crisis shouldn't we be looking at the various ways that we miss out on the revenue that the rest of the UK can call upon to actually do stuff with, but then doing stuff and the Assembly are two things that very rarely go together. Of course Peter Robinson is looking to get control of local corporation tax, but that is only so he can lower it to match the Republic of Ireland and therefore create more holes in budgets. Taxes and revenue need to meet expenditure not cause even more savings to be sought.

So make that Fiscally Responsible.

Holier than thou: Coming from a party that fails to take into account people of non-Christian, Roman Catholic Faith, or no faith into consideration this seems rather rich. When their definition of what is right is based on a rather narrow reading of the Bible which not even every Christian in Northern Ireland holds to 100%. When they cannot legislate for the state without reference to the bible it is clear who truly is Holier than thou, though I suspect that like the Pharisees and Sadducees before them are actually Holier than God creating extra laws and legislations to go on top of what Moses was given. This is why Jesus said that the greatest commandment was to love. For until you can live up to that one you cannot possibly start to consider the others and that is where the hate for certain sectors and failure to understand equality legislation leads to.

So finally I make that  Being a Good Samaritan for EVERYONE.

So in conclusion what Peter failed to see is that the Alliance Party is actually:

Flag Equality Everywhere, Police Supporting, People Respecting, Equality Supporting, Fiscally Responsible, Good Samaritan for EVERYONE

So yeah it is a simple choice for the people of East Belfast. If they want progress and normality that most of the Western World knows, loves and experiences then they can vote for Naomi Long. If they want to carry on with the bigotry, keeping others down and lurching from one financial crisis to another they can back Gavin Robinson.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Precious harassment

Some of the first words to come out of Mrs Bernadette Smyth's lawyer's mouth this afternoon was that the verdict was "a disappointment for Christians worldwide".

In light of the accusations of bullying in certain Christian quarters in Northern Ireland about another matter this is a bit rich. For those not aware of the antics of Mrs Smyth's Precious Life organisation they regular in large numbers stand outside the Marie Stopes centre in Belfast, questioning any woman of child bearing age who approaches the premises and asks them why they are going in.

The clinic has offered sexual and reproductive healthcare and early medical abortions within Northern Ireland's laws since it opened on Great Victoria Street in October 2012. But the harassment of those who regularly stand outside and picket is something that scares and horrifies a lot of us who have witnessed it. These are women many of whom are vulnerable enough, to actually have them take the steps of going through that barrage takes a certain amount of additional bravely that women do not have to encounter for similar advise elsewhere in the UK.

The particular allegations against Mrs Smyth come against Dawn Purvis the former PUP MLA who is now the director of the centre. On one occasion Ms Purvis asked the crowd to stop harassing her, only for Mrs Smyth to retort, "You ain't seen harassment yet, darling." This she denied until it was shown to her on CCTV when her story reverted to it being a joke.

On another occasion the venom was aimed at a female friend of Ms Purvis's son as they left the offices together having stopped in to leave some frozen food in the office. On this occasion Mrs Smyth followed the young woman up the street to carry on harassing her.

The lawyer is right about something, this is a disappointment for Christians worldwide, but not the verdict. The bible doesn't tell you to go out harassing those who disagree with you. It doesn't tell you to leave them fearing for their lives at your, or your acolytes' hands. The disappointment to Christian's worldwide is Mrs Smyth an the way she has gone about disagreeing with something. The way she and her followers make people who already feel vulnerable feel worse as they approach the centre. They say they are reaching out in love, but in essence as the court has ruled today they are really reaching out with hate.

Mrs Smyth was warned today that she could even face a prison sentence for her actions, but is already facing an injunction about being outside the Marie Stopes Centre.

Friday, 14 November 2014

A poem for equality

I'd love to be regarded as just a person but in Northern Ireland I am not.
The DUP look on me as a dirty blood, my doctors have a different thought.
The DUP call me as promiscuous, but partners would tell them otherwise
The DUP say I'm not child safe, despite niece and nephew's smiles.
The DUP think I'm anti-Christian, yet I have a faith just like they themselves espouse.

Yet even my church can't judge me on faith alone because of being gay I suppose.
I've been called "one of them" by the new health minister to my face,
Yet when we meet at family gatherings it can be he looks ill at ease

Sadly not all people are equal with each other here in Northern Ireland,
Not just with those around you but 'cross England, Wales and Scotland
Those who claim to support the union and keep us all as British
When if comes to our equality they act with anger and are skittish.
Because from their view point as white and male, protestant heterosexuals
Though loyal they claim to the Queens, to queens they act abysmal.
They life a live of privilege tell us they stand for equality
Yet their failure to deliver on that is plain for all to see.

You see when you place a petition of concern and fight our equality in courts
It clear that those words are hollow, we look past such words to your thoughts.
And there the truth is all to clear, other words ring through our ears
Because you still want to save Ulster from Sodomy after all these years.
Yet what you fear is that we actually are normal just like you
Want families and weddings and to not to stand out in a queue
Unless of course we want to, but that's a valid choice as well
So don't cover up our frustrations as "everything's going swell".
We live, we eat, we vote, we sleep, we serve you and your kin
Yet to treat us as your equals when will that walk begin.

To tell us we should expect not to be served, for others freedom of conscience,

That fighting for our equality can be discriminated against. Hence,
When we face a hurdle, that you and some of faith place in our way
We'll reach out those those with a stronger voice to let us have our say.
To challenge privilege you want to hold on to for a few, elect, the chosen ones.
Yet some of us are friends, your servers, family, daughters, sons?

So while we wait for you to enact on adoption, allow us a family life,

We'll carry on the fight for husband to wed husband and wife to take a wife.
While you take the blood of anyone when supplies are running low,
It's irrational that when MSM meet criteria that's fine elsewhere you still say no.
By your actions they shall know you, is what the good book proclaims
Your actions aren't loving when on equality all there is is shame.

So listen to what we're saying, look at the evidence science lights upon,
You've not stifle our cries of "unfair" the fight for equality rumbles on.

© 2014 Stephen Glenn 

Footnote This poem started to write itself in my head during the whole Ashers debate, it came to a head when Nelson McCausland wrote this opinion piece in the Belfast Telegraph. Some of the words on this then became an adaptation of my own comments.


Monday, 10 November 2014

Dear Churches of Northern Ireland: My slice of the equality cake

Here are a few of the statements made by churches in Northern Ireland in relation to the Equality Commission decision of action over Ashers Bakery.

First the Presbyterian Church in Ireland:

The Convener of the Church and Society Committee of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Very Rev. Dr. Norman Hamilton, has issued the following statement:
"I want to express deep concern on behalf of our Church at the apparent decision of the Equality Commission to take further steps towards legal action against the owners of Ashers Baking Company.

"In a situation where a business has clearly stated that it is willing to serve any customer irrespective of religion, sexual orientation or political belief, it surely is totally unjust to attempt to compel it to be involved in promoting causes which in conscience are against the owners’ strongly held Christian beliefs. There ought to be much more scope to exercise freedom of conscience in such situations, and as a society we need to strive for 'reasonable accommodation' in situations where there is a genuine conscientious problem.

"Such an apparent decision by the Equality Commission is not only very unhelpful in the particular situation in question, but it potentially undermines and shuts down the kind of respectful wider debate and discussions that are necessary. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland wants to encourage thoughtful, gracious and yet rigorous discussion about how Biblical faith should relate to equality legislation. Indeed, we recently held a well-attended day conference, entitled 'Equality, freedom and religion'.  There is a need to think through what a God honouring and Biblically faithful approach to equality, human rights and freedom should look like in our ever changing society. There is a need for Churches and Christian people to engage with these issues and indeed be to the fore in promoting such equality and human rights. However, decisions such as that apparently taken by the Equality Commission, far from assisting in such necessary engagement, in fact makes it significantly harder. This is a deeply regrettable failure of civic leadership by the Equality Commission." 6 Nov 2014
The Evangelical Alliance added this:

"Ashers Baking Company have been all over the news this week .They have indicated that they won't bow to renewed pressure from the Equality Commission who have decided to take them to court for declining to make what has become known as 'the gay cake'. The Christian run bakery declined to make a cake supporting gay marriage because it was against the directors' religious beliefs. Listen to a discussion of the case on BBC Talkback here.

"I believe the Ashers case could have serious ramifications that many in the media and elsewhere don't seem to have grasped. It isn't about a 'gay cake', in fact it has very little to do with sexuality or gay rights – the McArthurs who own Ashers did not know the sexual orientation of the customer. The Equality Commission have now written to Ashers saying they are not only guilty of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation but also religious and political opinion. The issue is that if this case is lost, religion will have been effectively banished from the public square. Significant political freedoms will also be lost as the Equality Commission decides which political and religious views are acceptable and which are not." 7 Nov 2014

The Methodist Council on Responsibility:

"We are deeply concerned about the decision of the Equality Commission to support legal action against Ashers Bakery following that company’s decision to refuse to make a cake with a slogan supporting gay marriage.

"It is our belief that at the centre of this dispute there is the matter of conscience for Ashers.

"We commend the company for their willingness to take a stance for the sake of conscience.

"If Ashers Bakery should suffer as a consequence of taking this stand how bizarre that the commission action would have been in the name of 'equality'." 9 Nov 2014
Update 13 Nov 2011 from the Church of Ireland

"Two key issues form part of the debate: discrimination and freedom of religious conscience. The Church of Ireland recognises and commends efforts to combat discrimination. In 2012, the General Synod affirmed '[a] continuing commitment to love our neighbour, and opposition to all unbiblical and uncharitable actions and attitudes in respect of human sexuality from whatever perspective' The Church is also currently actively engaged in constructive dialogue through its Select Committee on Human Sexuality in the Context of Christian Belief. What is not at all apparent in the Ashers case, however, is that there is a charge of discrimination to answer. It seems clear that the service was declined, not because of the sexual orientation of the customer but because of the particular political message requested upon the cake. 
"It is a serious concern that the freedom of religious conscience that the law affords to all people has also been challenged by the Equality Commission's decision. The owners of the baking company were upholding their adherence to the traditional Christian view on marriage as being between one man and one woman. In fact this position was affirmed by a majority of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland in 2012, and is the legal position in Northern Ireland. It is of real concern that a conscientious choice made by the owners of a small business, which reflects such a position, has been branded discriminatory and made the subject of heavy–handed legal action. The Church and Society Commission would encourage gracious and sensitive dialogue around this issue as we move forward."

Of these only the first one from the PCI talks about a wider issue, the EA hint at it but only in so far as it encrouches on them. Now if the churches think they are under attack you should try being a gay Christian in Northern Ireland.

If I post anything religious on my tweeter or Facebook timeline I have gay activists attacking me for supporting the churches or being soft on them, if I post something about LGBT equality I get attacked globally. If I post something that mentions both well it is like all hell has broken loose.

I would be more willing to accept the point of view of those in Christian circles on the recent Ashers dilemma if they did actually acknowledge that there is a grey area legally in all of this. That for a start Ashers had taken money for the order as a deposit and later rescinded that order. That also there is no disclaimer on Ashers website that you personalised celebration cake design may be subject to subsequent refusal because of its design. Nor do they acknowledge that part of the legal framework of this country does not allow discrimination on the perceived or actual sexual orientation of a patron by any company.

However, by ignoring certain issues in this case, with some church leaders disengaging with the LGBT community and others talking about it threatening dialogue they are all taking the wrong approach.

There is a wider issue and many LGBT Christians within your denominations have been crying out for your church leaderships to have that meaningful conversation. Notice I'm saying conversation not a monologue as Equality, freedom and religion as mentioned by the PCI actually was. The good Samaritan wasn't the one from across the road who looked at the injured man and assessed that things were fine and carried on at haste, he was the one who came over and sat down next to him, dealt with what was the matter and stayed with him while recovery took place.

Update (13 November) My issue with the subsequently issued Church of Ireland statement is there quoting the legal position as it currently stands in Northern Ireland. We have a complex equality equation here in Northern Ireland but can anyone truly separate religions freedom from political expression on the issues of LGBT equality in protestant circles. The fact that nationalist politicians have distanced church from state is to be applauded but more and more we are seeing the protestant denominations weighing in having political say on such issues. Support of marriage equality is not an illegal political opinion to have, unlike say national socialism, and indeed it is one that many within the churches also support and hold. Nobody is normally expecting the suppliers of bespoke objects they create for them to endorse the sentiment, merely take the money and trade and provide the service, anything further than that is asking someone to sponsor your idea.

The Methodists believe the centre of the issue is a matter of conscience, but when a matter of conscience is based on a precept that excludes others you are missing the whole point of your gospel to lover everyone, no caveats, no matters of conscience. Maybe the centre of this matter does lie elsewhere, many in the LGBT community hate the church and all it stand for. They hate things being done in the name of churches by politicians in Stormont to block LGBT equality legislation.

The others feel like their appeals for their own churches to actually take action, to listen to the grievances and concerns of those who experience both sides is not happening, or ignores actions they have promised, especially when issues like this come to a head. You can say all you want that you are not homophobic but when you language talks of reasonable accommodations, serious ramifications, and taking a stance for the sake on conscience, when only only one side benefits you are actually homophobic. It is like what Fr Tim Bartlett said you want the right of all people, in this case Christians, to freedom of conscience to be vindicated. That is not a good way to go about equality.

Yes I agree with all the churches that there is an issue here. But I do not agree they their freedom of conscience is under attack to the same extent that they continue to have undo and overbearing influence of those of faith and without over civic matters and therefore the freedom of conscience of others.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Can Peter Robinson please define bonkers?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
So last night Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson said of the decision of the Equality Commission to consider taking legal action against Ashers:

"This kind of decision from the Equality Commission is bonkers. They really do need to wind their necks in. 

"In times when we are scrapping around trying to get funding for essential services for Northern Ireland, they are tossing it away."

No forgive me it I am wrong but there were recent cuts to services announced in health care provision, which is run by one of his party's ministers, whose predecessor has run up large legal bills to try and prevent gay couples from adopting, this was lost in the supreme court in October 2013. That department is also pursuing legal appeals against a decision that the lifetime ban on Men who've had Sex with Men (MSM) is irrational and should also come into line with the rest of the UK.

Yes, you see there is a department that is scrapping around trying to get funding for essential service that has been tossing it away trying to prevent equality.

So I ask Peter Robinson which is  bonkers?

Is it seeking a ruling on something that there is clearly some dispute on, or ignoring or refusing to acknowledge judicial rulings until all levels of appeal are expended at the public's expense?

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Father Tim Bartlett's dichotomy of freedom of conscience

Today Fr Tim Bartlett, who to be fair is to be praised for engaging with Belfast Pride's Hymn and Us debate, issued a statement that doesn't 100% make sense.

"I will be writing today to those groups from the gay community, with whom I have had a very constructive and ongoing engagement in recent years, to say that I am withdrawing my engagement until the right of all people, in this case Christians, to freedom of conscience is vindicated and respected by the Equality Commission and the gay community. 
"I also want to know why the chief commissioner of the Equality Commission talked quite openly about the Ashers case during the Gay Pride debate in Belfast but has since claimed he is not free to talk about it in public debate."
Now he says he is withdrawing "engagement until the right of all people" to freedom on conscience is vindicated and respected. Of course in between those two cases he adds a caveat.

Having attending Hymn and Us as part of the panel the priest is no doubt aware that there are LGBT Christians, some of them within his own Roman Catholic Church. So will he also be disengaging with Rome and the senior clergy here in Ireland until the rights of all Catholics, in this case LGBT members, to freedom of conscience is vindicated and respected?

What about the gay Presbyterians like myself, will he stop engaging with the PCI on the same basis? You see even allowing Christians to have a freedom of conscience the issue is which section of them have the right take on what their conscience tells them.

The whole issue of course stems from the refusal, after original agreement, to supply a cake with a Marriage Equality logo on it by Ashers Bakery. There is under the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006:

Goods, facilities or services 

(1) It is unlawful for any person concerned with the provision (for payment or not) of goods, facilities or services to the public or a section of the public to discriminate against a person who seeks to obtain or use those goods, facilities or services —

(a) by refusing or deliberately omitting to provide him with any of them; or
(b) by refusing or deliberately omitting to provide him with goods, facilities or services of the same quality, in the same manner and on the same terms as are normal in his case in relation to other members of the public or (where the person seeking belongs to a section of the public) to other members of that section.

(2) It is unlawful for any person concerned with the provision of goods, facilities or services as mentioned in paragraph (1), in relation to such provision, to subject to harassment —

(a) a person who seeks to obtain or use those goods, facilities or services; or
(b) a person to whom he provides those goods, facilities and services.

(3) The following are examples of the facilities and services mentioned in paragraph (1) —
(g)the services of any profession or trader, or any local or other public authority.<
There is a difference between an individuals conscience and a public company's legal requirements.

For example a Quaker business owner cannot say I don't agree with war and therefore will refuse to pay my proportion of corporation tax and VAT that the Government will spent on funding such a war.

Nor can a Free Presbyterian business owner here in Northern Ireland without the proportion of expenditure on either the Catholic maintained or Integrated Education funding that they may not support.

The conscience of the business is to uphold the law of the land, Jesus himself when tested on this by the Pharisees said render unto Ceasar that which is Ceasar's. Ashers as well as their general bread and cake making business also make bespoke cakes.

Clause 5 (1)b clearly states "by refusing or deliberately ommitting to provide him with good, facilities or services of the same quality,in the same manner amd on the same terms as are normal in his case in relation to other member of the public" a company acts unlawfully. So is this what Father Bartlett really means? That he is withdrawing engagement so that firms that act unlawfully.