NIHRC Advises on Freedom of Conscience Proposals
27 February 2015
The Human Rights Commission has provided advice on the proposed Freedom of Conscience Amendment Bill. It is the Commission’s role to review the adequacy and effectiveness of law and practice in Northern Ireland relating to the protection of Human Rights.
On the underpinning principles of the Bill
The Commission advises that the underlying premise of the proposed Bill, which is that freedom to manifest one’s religion is undermined by the protection of individuals from discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation, is unfounded. This matter has been given substantial consideration by domestic courts on a number of occasions. In addition, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that in general the UK legislative framework strikes a balance operating the margin of appreciation allowed within the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
On the proposed exception for a voluntary adoption agency or fostering agency
The Commission advises that in carrying out a function that is of public nature, a voluntary agency providing an adoption or fostering service is a public authority in accordance with the Human Rights Act. It is unlawful for a voluntary agency to act in a way which is incompatible with the ECHR. The proposed exception for a voluntary adoption agency or fostering agency is in the Commission’s view incompatible with the ECHR, Article 8 read together with Article 14.
In accordance with the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Northern Ireland Assembly cannot enact laws that are incompatible with any of the ECHR rights. This being the case, the proposed Bill, in the Commission’s view, is outside the legislative competence of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
On the proposals regarding Businesses: exception based on religious belief
The Commission advises that the proposed clause is retrogressive and will undermine a fundamental principle of human rights. It would lead to a restriction on access to goods, facilities and services by private companies that in practice would be applied against one community or one protected group. We advise that the manifestation of a religious belief that involves discrimination against a protected group does not have the protection of human rights law.