The important debate about how to achieve accommodation between the right to manifest our faith or beliefs and the right to access goods, facilities and services without discrimination has intensified as a result of the Ashers case but the proposed DUP Bill is not a serious contribution to the matter.
It is entirely possible to wish the Ashers case had been approached differently and yet regard the Bill as a disproportionate and dangerous response.
It proposes to reverse anti-discrimination law and allow businesses to widely restrict the provision of goods, facilities and services if they believe this provision to be in conflict with strongly held religious convictions on sexual orientation.
Exemption from anti-discrimination law and reasonable accommodation must normally be justifiable and strictly defined. This Bill; however, could go as far as to permit a restaurateur to refuse to serve same-sex couples if they believe they would be facilitating behaviour against their strongly held religious convictions on sexual orientation.
This is not proportionate or acceptable in a democratic society, it could actually limit religious freedom and has unnecessarily polarised our community rather than contributing to a respectful and informed public debate on reasonable accommodation.
When faith-based organisations like Evangelical Alliance, who support Ashers and the principle of reasonable accommodation, acknowledge that this Bill has caused legitimate concern about ‘discriminatory treatment on a wide range of goods and services for LGBT people,’ it should be cause for serious refection.
Last week; however, the DUP and UUP blocked an Alliance Assembly motion calling for recognition that the proposed Bill is not an appropriate starting point for a responsible public debate on how to deliver reasonable accommodation.
The Alliance motion also called on OFMDFM to publish the overdue draft Equality Bill, to bring Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the UK and Europe on age, gender, disability and other equality protection, for both public consultation and to facilitate respectful consideration of reasonable accommodation.
Despite this lack of leadership from the DUP, the Alliance Party supports the principle of reasonable accommodation and will continue to work with anyone to achieve an appropriate balance for freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination for everyone in our community.