Northern Ireland may need a Freedom *from* Conscience Bill

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.


13 thoughts on “Northern Ireland may need a Freedom *from* Conscience Bill

  1. Nail on the head, Ian. The Church of Ireland may have bren disestablished in 1869, but as you precisely demonstrate, church powers are well established in Northern Ireland.

    And see short research article by us:

    Most Europeans think those of us who argue for separation of church and state are secularists or, gasp, atheists, but that is disingenuous. Rather, it’s for everyone to pratice the religion of their choice, without favour. We have a lot of favouritism in Northern Ireland.

  2. Reblogged this on Gyronny Herald and commented:
    Some interesting thoughts from Ian Parsley.

  3. cmckee says:

    good article but you single out catholic schools for some strange reason all schools are paid for by taxes so i don’t see your point here

    • Catholic Schools are specific to one religious denomination. It is odd for a secular society to fund religious schools – others in NI are not so funded – although practically at the moment it is probably the only option.

      State Schools are not nominally religious generally (although my point is that they do compel pupils usually to do RE and they do have Church representation among Governors, to in practice they effectively are).

  4. valeriekerr11 says:

    “I am always wary that when people say they want a “secular society” what they really mean is they want state-sponsored atheism.” Unfair and untrue!
    As Jody Quinn said:
    “He was going so well up to ” secularists want state sponsored atheism “. No, they want what you claim to be in favour of in the same bloody article- the freedom from having religion encroach in every aspect of our lives. Like, you know, secular schools. If this is state sponsored atheism, ian, it seems you are one of its supporters.”

  5. Very interesting, well considered opinion. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Michael Steenson says:

    I personally feel this clause is a rushed response to an issue thats already been blown way out of proportion, however I feel there should be a Conscience clause, just not explicitly for religious reasoning. As businesses should want to generate a profit from which to run, I think its fair to suggest that it doesnt want to reduce custom by rejecting custom, but I feel businesses should be allowed to refuse a product or service on grounds such a sectarianism, racism, homophobia and moral reasoning* (*subject to providing a basis for such clearly on the business premises in order to clearly qualify their position.) Ultimately this will affect the business; those who support their stance will provide custom and those who oppose, can shop elsewhere. I would suggest a freedom from religious people is somewhat throwing the baby out with the bath water- a shared society will thrive on dialogue and maybe some zealots should pay heed to that otherwise they’ll isolate themselves and, in that instance, will solve a multitude of problems, however im assuming there was a hint of irony rather than serious suggestion here.

    Ultimately there are a number of issues raised here that should be considered- I actually dont feel society or church benefits from this cosy position on school boards, I dont see any community benefit of the Orange Order (personally, no benefit at all) and never saw R.E. as providing anything other than a discussion panel for morals and ethics- something I feel should be encouraged to GCSE but lets really call it for what it is.

  7. Andy Eagle says:

    RE. Learning about religions so the other is no longer strange and threatening or religious indoctrination?

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