Northern Ireland will have some free speech and religious liberty protections in place when same-sex marriage becomes legal, the Government has confirmed.
The Christian Institute had warned the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) that it faced possible legal action if protections were not in place when the law comes into force later this month.
Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith has now responded to confirm a series of legal changes will be made to coincide with the introduction of same-sex marriage.
Public order law will be amended to underline that criticism of same-sex marriage is not an offence.
He also said that equality law is being amended so that religious bodies and staff cannot be sued for declining to take part in a blessing or other event marking a civil same-sex wedding.
Changes will also protect the ability of religious organisations to dismiss a staff member who enters a same-sex marriage if that is incompatible with the organisation’s values.
The Secretary of State says he is also in discussion with Northern Irish equalities bodies about guidance for employers and schools to make clear that beliefs and opinions about marriage should be respected.
From January 13, civil same-sex marriages will become legal, with the first to take place on Valentine’s Day, and further changes will be made in April 2020 to allow religious same-sex weddings.
Additional legal changes will be needed to protect ministers of religion and places of worship from being obliged to facilitate same-sex weddings.
Only a small fraction of places of worship are registered for same-sex weddings in England and Wales.
Simon Calvert, Deputy Director for Public Affairs at The Christian Institute, said: “We are grateful that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has recognised the validity of the issues we have raised and has acted to address each of the areas of concern that we have about same-sex civil weddings.”
“We will be monitoring closely to ensure that the guidance needed to protect freedom of speech and conscience in schools and workplaces is clear and robust.”
He continued: “It is also important that there is proper training and guidance for the police to ensure respect for freedom of speech on these issues.
“We don’t want people using the police to try to punish those who believe in traditional marriage.”
He added that the Institute “will also be looking very carefully at the detail of the forthcoming NIO consultation on religious same-sex weddings”.
An NIO spokesman said: “The Government has laid regulations that will make same-sex civil marriage and OSCPs lawful from 13 January 2020, with relevant protections equivalent to those across the rest of the UK.
“We intend to consult on same-sex religious marriage and conversion entitlements in the coming weeks. Further regulations will then follow.”
Republished by permission of the Christian Institute.