The attempt by the DUP to introduce a new clause into Northern Ireland’s equality laws which would allow religious business owners to refuse services to LGBT customers is a blatant attempt to enshrine a right to discriminate into law.
This attempt to drive society backwards would make it perfectly acceptable under the law for a B&B owner to refuse to cater for a gay couple. The DUP – who have a long record of opposing gay rights – have tried to say this is about “rebalancing” rights, with Peter Robinson claiming that “[m]ore and more, the balance is tipped against people of faith.”
The experience of ordinary people is very different. The vast majority of schools are either church-run or have church leaders on their governing bodies. The majority of schools also make Religious Education compulsory up to GCSE-level, with over 90% of the syllabus focussing on Christianity. At the same time, LGBT people in Northern Ireland are still denied the right to adopt, the right to marry and even the right to give blood!
The Socialist Party is completely opposed to religious discrimination, such as the comments by the First Minister implying that Muslims aren’t trustworthy, attempts to ban the hijab or to stop workers wearing religious symbols or clothing at work, be it the turban or the crucifix. This “conscience” clause, however, is not about defending real religious freedom but giving a small group of business owners the right to deny others their rights.
There is huge opposition to this bill. Over 10,000 have already signed an online petition against it. Stephen Fry’s description of the clause as “sick” has got a hugely positive reaction. The mood in society is against homophobia and for full equality. Reflecting this, other political parties have been forced to say they will block the bill.
Even if this attack on LGBT rights is defeated, we still need a struggle for real equality. This means a fight for equal rights, including in access to marriage and adoption, and a struggle against homophobia in our schools, workplaces and communities. Linked to this, we need to fight against sexism and for a woman’s right to choose, the denial of which threatens the lives of women everyday. This would require a real separation of church and state, where schools, adoption services, etc, are not in the hands of an unrepresentative religious minority but run democratically in the interests of all.
Clearly, the political establishment in Northern Ireland is not up for that challenge. It’s not just the DUP who are influenced by hardline religious forces. Leading figures in the SDLP, UUP and Alliance have all opposed gay marriage rights. Sinn Féin recently voted against repealing the anti-choice eighth amendment from the Irish Constitution, which equates the life of a woman with the existence of a foetus. We need to build a of new political movement of workers and young people to fight for real equality, against sectarianism and austerity. If you agree, join the Socialists!