Where are the boundaries of a conscience clause?

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DUP MLA Paul Givan’s announcement this morning that he is going to introduce a private members bill to bring in a conscience clause brings forth an important question; where is the boundary of that conscience?

We have equality legislation for a reason, that is to set the bounds of what counts as discrimination corporately. If we include in that legislation the right for individuals to set their own boundaries where will it end? You see if you let people have a get out clause that their own personal conscience allows them to do something you would have anarchy and nobody knowing their rights and boundaries.

A atheistic vandal who defaces a church property with any slogan could claim in court that his personal conscience told him that the church’s teachings were ridiculous that he had to warn others against their ‘lies’. With a conscience clause in place it would be highly likely that they would have to be let off, after all it is their own personal conscience that has the precedent.

This is the situation that Givan’s proposed bill brings to bear. His and the DUP’s intent is Orwellian in that all groups collective conscience is equal but some are more equal that others. However, you cannot give one group freedom of conscience without allowing it for all. Therefore attacks on churches and Christians are just as valid under a truly equal freedom of conscience bill, the only way one would pass an equality audit in compliance with Section 75 of the Northern Act.

Therein lies the problem for Paul Givan enshrined in the legislation that governs the Assembly states that all public bodies must not discriminate against one group. Therefore for example a business could avoid giving access to disabled people if the say their personal conscience tells them that all disabilities are a visible manifestation of god’s judgement on that person.

Even if Givan’s bill somehow managed to pass an equality audit, the Liberal Democrats in Northern Ireland would call on all right thinking MLAs to raise a petition of concern on this issue. As it is legalising discrimination this is a valid and proper use of that mechanism. While the DUP would ensure that it would have the required majority in the unionist vote I suspect that enough of Sinn Féin and SDLP would vote against to ensure that it falls in gaining cross community support.

Paul Givan’s proposals are not about equality, they are actually a way to take a step backwards and allow intolerance that we have ruled out in the public sphere over recent years. It is actually a knee-jerk and ill thought out institutionalised homophobia, but it can stretch far further than that legalising sectarianism, racism, ablest, anti-religionism amongst other intolerance, because anyone would be able to decide for themselves how they would behave.

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