Faith Matters

Navigating the terrain of 'intolerant tolerance'

The challenge of being faithful to your conscience in a climate characterised by illiberal 'tolerance' will be the focus of a conference in Belfast on Saturday, writes Tracy Harkin of the Iona Institute

Daniel and Amy McArthur of Ashers bakery have urged other Christians to "take their stand". In October, the Supreme Court ruled that Ashers had not discriminated on grounds of sexual orientation, religious belief or political opinion in declining to decorate a cake with the message 'Support Gay Marriage'. Judges unanimously agreed the bakery had objected to the message and not the messenger. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire

FREEDOM of conscience has become a major issue of our time.

The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion are the hallmark of any genuinely pluralist and democratic society.

Freedom of conscience is protected as a fundamental human right under the European Convention on Human Rights, yet a multitude of recent examples in Ireland, the UK and other countries show concerted attempts are underway to eradicate this right.

Medical professionals, teachers, business owners and parents have all been impacted.

Medical professionals in particular are experiencing increasing discrimination in the workplace because of their beliefs.

The Irish government's recent insistence that the majority of GPs who conscientiously object to abortion will be forced to refer to another doctor has led to major discontent among the medical profession.

In the UK, Muslim and other concerned parents are being told they cannot withdraw their children from government-sponsored school programmes which teach young children that gender is not biologically given but a matter of choice.

In England last week, Catholic media commentator Caroline Farrow was instructed by police to present herself for questioning after being reported for using the wrong pronoun to describe a transgender girl on Twitter.

In Sweden, Ellinor Grimmark, a midwife who refused to carry out abortions, has been forced to take her case to the ECHR as she is unable to get work in a public hospital - even though Sweden is a country with a shortage of midwives.

Closer to home, the McArthur family had to endure a four-and-a-half-year-long legal battle when their bakery politely refused to ice a cake bearing a 'Support gay marriage' slogan, with the case against them backed by the Equality Commission.

In the current climate simply expressing the Judeo-Christian understanding of marriage and human sexuality could become a hate crime.

We are in danger of becoming an intolerant, illiberal society, in the name of 'tolerance'.

Against this background, the Iona Institute NI is hosting an important conference in Belfast this Saturday entitled 'The future of conscience in an age of intolerance'.

To help explore these hugely important issues we are delighted to welcome an expert line-up of speakers.

These include legal expert Nuala O'Loan DBE. As a member of the House of Lords, she is currently campaigning for conscience rights through her sponsorship of a parliamentary bill which seeks to protect the freedom of conscience of medical professionals.

Dr Helen Watt, senior research fellow at the Anscombe Bioethics Centre in Oxford, will also be taking part.

Her publications and research interests include reproductive ethics, action theory and issues of cooperation and conscientious objection.

Benedict Ó Floinn, Senior Counsel and trial advocate, will be sharing from his experiences.

He has been a prominent participant in the various debates to amend the Irish Constitution and has appeared in a wide range of landmark cases involving human rights and constitutional provisions

Completing the line-up of speakers is David Smyth from Evangelical Alliance NI.

A former solicitor, he leads on public policy for the Evangelical Alliance NI and represents them on a range of government, civic and charitable forums.

  • Tracy Harkin is spokeswoman for the Iona Institute NI, a Christian advocacy group and research body.
  • 'The Future of Conscience in an Age of Intolerance' will take place in the Wellington Park Hotel in Belfast on Saturday March 30 from 10am to 1.30pm. Admission is £10 or £5 for students and unwaged. To book a place and for more information email or telephone 075 3114 9891.

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