What is freedom of conscience and how will it be affected by the referendum?

The Irish Catholic has asked an interdisciplinary team, which includes Prof. Eamonn Conway and Dr Rik Van Nieuwenhove, theologians at Mary Immaculate College University of Limerick, and Mr Patrick Treacy SC of Integritas, to consider and respond to the difficult questions we all face when deciding how to vote in the referendum.

Respect for freedom of conscience has recently emerged in the same-sex marriage referendum debate as a matter of grave concern. If same-sex marriage is introduced, will allowance be made for a ‘conscience clause’?

A ‘conscience clause’ is a clause that allows people to be exempted from the requirements of a particular law on the basis that they would have to violate their consciences in order to comply with the law. Recently, in Northern Ireland, politicians proposed A Freedom of Conscience Bill after it emerged that a company was being criminally prosecuted for refusing to bake a cake with a slogan on it promoting same-sex marriage.

Following a recent address to the Iona Institute on ‘The Teaching of the Church on Marriage Today’, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin was reported in the media (apparently inaccurately) as calling for provision of a ‘conscience clause’ if same-sex marriage is approved in the referendum.

This provoked several protests. A spokesperson for the ‘Yes’ campaign, Mark Kelly, of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, said that this would be giving a licence to people to use their religious beliefs to discriminate against others. Tánaiste Joan Burton said “No, such an exemption will not be possible”.

The negative reaction that the idea of a ‘conscience clause’ has evoked shows that we are not just debating same-sex marriage. We are debating the kind of society we wish to be. Introducing same-sex marriage is not at all simply to be equated with eradicating discrimination and inequality; instead, it could bring with it new forms of discrimination.

So what is freedom of conscience, and why is it so important? We will answer this from the point of view of Catholic teaching.

Search for truth

Each human being’s search for the truth should be treated with respect and with reverence.  St John Paul II said that “Objectively speaking, the search for truth and the search for God are one and the same” (Message for the World Day of Peace 1991). It follows that when we are faced with a person’s conscientious convictions, we are dealing with something sacred. Respect means that I must not belittle or dismiss those convictions but must rather regard them as an expression of something that is fundamental to our human dignity: we are beings who seek the truth (John Paul II, Fides et Ratio 33).

Respect, however, cannot mean that I must approve of or accept as true another person’s convictions, however deep or sincere. My search for truth and my convictions are also deserving of respect. Without mutual respect there can be no tolerant or plural society.

I should not be obliged by law or by any kind of coercion to act as if I did not believe my conscientious convictions to be true. 


A society that seeks to oblige citizens to act against what they believe to be right and true risks undermining the basis of its own legitimacy. Society, after all, is built on its citizens’ convictions about truth and justice and human dignity. Hence the great danger, for instance, of denying politicians a free vote on issues of conscience. 

The human rights of another person demand, not that I agree with him/her, not that I associate myself with that person’s belief, but that I do not deny a person’s right to hold their convictions;  nor should I deny the sincerity with which I should presume they are held unless there is unmistakeable proof to the contrary.

The examples that have been reported recently seem to presume a ‘right’ to demand, for instance, that a printer produce invitations for a same-sex marriage or a baker produce a cake with a slogan advancing a position contrary to his/her convictions. These issues seem to have arisen in cities with large numbers of bakers and stationers. What would be the basis of a claim to insist that people who do not share my convictions should produce for me material expressing views with which they disagree?

Of course bakers, stationers and others should be prosecuted if they refuse to serve customers just because they are gay. Neither would it be right for providers to refuse services that are only remotely related to gay marriage and which of themselves do not necessarily imply approval.

However, if customers demand that people assist them in expressing approval of same-sex marriage and/or participate in promoting it, or indeed in promoting any position that providers believe to be wrong, that is a different question. Then, a line is being crossed.

Coercing people

There is an important distinction to be made between preventing people from doing what they believe they should be allowed to do, and coercing people into doing what they believe to be wrong.  We can envisage situations where it may be necessary to prevent people from doing what they believe they should be allowed to do, because in so doing they might  violate other people’s rights.

Coercing people in to doing whan they believe to be wrong, however, means directly violating an individual’s conscience. This is the kind of thing we see in the bakery, stationery and parliamentary vote examples.  

It is ironic that a referendum which is being presented as being simply about respecting the right of same-sex couples to do what they believe they should be allowed to do, now appears also to be a provision which could mean that many people will be coerced by law into doing what they believe to be wrong!