Religious freedom little respected in debate

People of faith watching the Stormont debate on same-sex marriage will take little comfort, writes Fr Andrew McMahon

Fr Andrew McMahon

A persistent feature of the pseudo-liberalism promoted by the Irish media, and slavishly followed by many of the political classes across this island, is its reluctance to accord a respectful hearing to those who dissent from its chosen dogmas.

The bringing forward of yet another motion proposing same-sex marriage north of the border last week saw this particular genre of Irish public discourse revisit the floor of the Stormont Assembly, where certain public representatives launched their latest round of attacks on traditional understandings of marriage and family and on those who have the temerity to continue to adhere to these. While many of those who contributed to the Stormont debate, including some in favour of same-sex marriage, approached the  debate with an awareness that others were entitled to differ from them, the party which had set down the motion, Sinn Féin, showed little readiness to respect such legitimate difference.    

Former education minister, Caitríona Ruane, brought forward the motion for Sinn Féin in language which was provocative from the outset. She outlined what she described as her party’s determination to “take on discrimination and homophobia using all the tools at our disposal” and to “drown out the negative, hateful bile” of which Ms Ruane appeared to believe opponents of her thinking were guilty.

Those opposing same-sex marriage were compared to supporters of the apartheid regime in South Africa. She worked her way through the other parties present, deriding each for either taking a stance different from Sinn Féin on same-sex marriage, or for allowing party members the freedom to dissent from party policy in the vote which followed. The Ulster Unionist Party, which allowed a free vote on what they designated a matter of conscience, were mocked by Ms Ruane as “sitting on the fence as usual”.


She went on to issue a warning to those intending to challenge her party’s proposal “to be very careful when they are speaking”.

“Those politicians who incite hatred” concluded Ms Ruane “do not wring your hands, cite your conscience, or say that you are against violence, if your words – your words – are the words ringing in ears of the person who throws the brick through the window. Shame on you! Shame on you!”

Other Sinn Féin contributors, if less explosive in tone, were similarly entrenched in their approach. Megan Fearon, party spokesperson for Families, Children and Youth, launched a tirade against the conventional model of parenting, declaring that “the narrative that a child needs a man and a woman in order to be raised properly is completely false”.

“It is insulting to single-parent families everywhere to say that a child needs a mother and a father” proposed Ms Fearon, adding that “In fact, it is insulting to all families to say that.”

It’s is intriguing, in the light of this, to look at the specific wording of the Sinn Féin motion which gave rise to the Stormont debate. It proposed explicitly that the Assembly “respects the rights of the religious institutions to define, observe and practise marriage within their beliefs”. Those who spoke in support of the motion made much of this clause, emphasising that the proposal sought merely to address the concept of ‘civil marriage’.

Many will be inclined to conclude, however, that were they to find themselves under a regime where the thinking of Ms Ruane or Ms Fearon held sway, living according to one’s beliefs and values could be a rather hazardous business.

Harbouring a traditional view of marriage would land you in the same category as white supremacists and daring to promote the desirability of a father and mother for upbringing the young could be designated a hate crime. Voicing an opinion against same-sex marriage would apparently be indistinguishable from acts of violence and following one’s conscience in public life would be unacceptably subversive. So much for ‘equality’ and ‘diversity’!

DUP assemblyman Peter Weir, in challenging the motion, drew attention to the already precarious situation for religious freedoms when it came to controversies around same-sex issues.

He cited the case of Ashers Bakery in Belfast, against whom the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland have brought a legal challenge, because this family concern was unwilling to decorate a cake with the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’. Mr Weir questioned the viability of the alleged protection for religious belief within the same-sex marriage motion, labelling this “an attempt to sugar the pill”.

“I ask what level of worth that has” said Mr Weir, who predicted that if such a redefinition of marriage were to be enacted, Churches would find themselves under increasing pressure to conform to it.

Those sceptical about the rights of the religious institutions being upheld will hardly have been assured by what emerged from another of Sinn Féin’s proponents of the motion, South Down member, Chris Hazzard. Mr Hazzard was his party’s third speaker in the debate.

When a unionist opponent quoted Archbishop Eamon Martin as saying “that the union of a man and a woman in marriage, open to the procreation of children, is a gift from God who created us male and female”; Mr Hazzard embarked on an offensive against “various parties in this chamber” who were, he maintained, “weaponising scripture when it comes to these debates”.

“They know that there is no empirical evidence to back up their case” suggested Mr Hazzard, “so they resort back to a text that is thousands of years old, they distort the meaning of it in various ways and they saturate society with twisted logic that does nothing but hold us back”.

Mr Hazzard may be justified in pointing out that sacred texts can sometimes be deployed for questionable ends. The north of Ireland has hardly been exempt from this. However, anyone who checks the Assembly record for April 27 will verify that no one even quoted scripture in the course of the same-sex marriage debate that day – never mind ‘weaponise’ it.

Mr Hazzard’s accusation seemed little more than a diversion from the fact that he was, himself, either unable to engage with a basic Christian perspective on a significant public issue, or was simply unwilling to do so.

Few will be convinced, from the performance of Chris Hazzard and his party colleagues, that the beliefs and values underpinning married and family life, for so many of our people, have much chance of being meaningfully respected should these members ever get their way at Stormont. As it turned out, however, their motion was defeated.

Fr Andrew McMahon is a priest of the Diocese of Dromore.