The movement towards marriage equality in the rest of the UK and Ireland has finally reached Northern Ireland. At last year’s ‘Pride Talks Back’ event, marriage equality featured high on the agenda of the audience and received political support from five of the six party representatives. At a debate in the Assembly last October, a motion on marriage equality was rejected by only two votes. At first glance it may seem that it is just a matter of time before the legislation is changed to ensure same-sex couples have the same marriage rights as their heterosexual peers. However, a closer examination will reveal that it may not be that easy.
Firstly, the largest opposition to equal marriage comes from the Unionist representatives and particularly the DUP, the majority party of the assembly. The Lord Mayor of Belfast, Gavin Robinson, was diplomatically defensive of his religious beliefs for opposing equal marriage when questioned at ‘Pride Talks Back’ and this is a position shared by many of his unionist colleagues in the DUP and other political parties. Secondly, despite the apparent support from the political parties at this event, a number of parties have failed to support equal marriage at a policy level, citing it as a matter of personal conscience for individual members. This is a recurring theme among politicians and it is very worrying indeed. What does personal conscience mean when it comes to politics?
It means politicians can use their own personal beliefs to dictate how they govern. Normally this is an acceptable concept as we may vote for people because they share the same beliefs as us and, naturally, we want them in government to fight and support those beliefs. However, in the context of Marriage Equality, ‘personal conscience’ is an excuse for politicians to use their religious beliefs to favour a ‘traditional’ concept of marriage, using this as grounds for rejecting equal marriage. For example, in the Assembly debate a MLA and Minister in the Executive claimed he was not speaking as an MLA or as a Minister of the executive, but as a Christian. He was not the only one. Although not as explicit, the matter of personal conscience, derived from religious beliefs, was the main argument used by those opposed to Marriage Equality. This is unacceptable. There is no room for the religious beliefs of politicians in a secular government. It is true that we may vote for politicians based on their personality, or because we feel that they share our beliefs and principles. But the people we vote for do not always get into government. The majority favourite will get into government and will generally act at the behest of the majority that put them there. But they have a responsibility to act for everyone they represent, not just the majority. And in a democratic society we expect our politicians to uphold democratic principles such as equality, human rights and a separation of church and state. Based on the Assembly debate on marriage equality, we expect too much.
The use of religion in this argument is inappropriate for a second reason. There are many religious institutions that support marriage equality and would relish the opportunity to perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. This is the beauty of religious freedom, i.e. that all beliefs can be equally represented in a secular state. This religious freedom is protected in any proposed legislation that ensures equal marriage and politicians are aware of this, though some may make statements to the contrary. To be crystal clear, equal marriage will not have any detrimental effect on any group of people who oppose it for religious reasons.
Do not be fooled by any religious argument. It is used by those who oppose marriage equality to rationalise their prejudiced beliefs and to scaremonger their constituents. In reality, allowing same sex couples the same rights and legal protections as heterosexual couples through marriage harms no-one, but benefits many.