The idea of a Freedom of Conscience Clause is brilliant politics from the DUP. It’s also utter nonsense.
It is brilliant politics because it suggests to their own voters (and likely potential voters) that they are being discriminated against; that there is some secular bogey man out there who is stopping them leading their religious lives; and that somehow there is a distinction between living a religious life on one hand and treating people equally in public on the other. It’s great stuff, appealing right to the heart strings.
It’s all rubbish, of course, and they know it. In fact, Christians in Northern Ireland (and I am one, by the way) retain a specifically advantaged place in society – both as opposed to non-Christians, and as opposed to Christians anywhere else in the UK. Religious Education remains a compulsory GCSE, 94% of which covers Christianity. Christian Churches are represented on the Boards of Governors of almost all schools (and will continue to be), and indeed run nearly half of them directly with full State funding. Christian groups including the Orange Order don’t pay rates on their premises. Motions on issues such as same-sex marriage go out of their way to exclude Churches and, in fact, it may well turn out that the bakery which refused to bake the same-sex marriage cake wins its case – in other words, that equality laws are easily generous enough to Christians already.
In fact, if you bother with the evidence (and politicians generally don’t, of course), it all points the other way – Northern Ireland really needs a Freedom from Conscience Bill. The problem in fact is that religious views are not just tolerated but promoted in education. The problem in fact is that those choosing specifically Catholic schools are guaranteed them on the taxpayer, whereas those who want a religion-free education have no options at all. The problem in fact is that Christian groups are often excluded from paying rates and such like. The problem in fact is that laws are already written in such a way that Christians can all but pretend they are not bound by them. Indeed, the problem in fact is that what passes for “political debate” in Northern Ireland almost always has religious undertones – made worse by the fact religious debate is by necessity a matter of “right and wrong” rather than “compromise”, and thus entirely unsuited to politics and even more unsuited to politics in a diverse society.
I am always wary that when people say they want a “secular society” what they really mean is they want state-sponsored atheism. However, it is clear that the real issue in Northern Ireland is not freedom for religious people but freedom from them, and particularly from the type of religious zealots who wish to deprive long oppressed minorities of rights they should long ago have had. The truth is that too many religious people believe they have the right to enforce their views on everyone else and then demand priority, not just equality, for people who happen to share those views. I’m all for defending people’s (indeed my own) right to be religious, but only if they defend the right of others not to be (or to be of a different religion). After all, that is the only way a diverse, secular society can function.