Northern Ireland's Legal Predicament on Marriage Equality

21/08/2012 12:59 BST | Updated 20/10/2012 10:12 BST

Imagine a country in this part of the world legislating that members of a specific community are to be legally impeded from having the same rights as everyone else. Say for example people of different skin colour or religion. I could guarantee with certainty that public outcries would ensue totally denouncing such bigotry and intolerance whilst demanding an immediate change to the law.

2012-08-21-DSC02300.jpg Members of QUB LGBT holding a sign that reads
"Did I vote on your Marriage?", 4th August 2012
Photo: Tyler McNally ©

Our society here in Northern Ireland rightly deserves a great deal of praise when it comes to some areas of equality. Progress has been made in tackling cultural intolerance, racism and even sectarianism with our government actively attempting to bridge various societal inequalities and gaps of such nature.

Unfortunately nothing highlights the recurrent issue of lingering inequality than when a veteran Church of Ireland cleric, Canon Charles Kenny, publicly backs David Cameron's calls for same sex Marriage identifying that Homophobia is the new sectarianism in Northern Ireland.

Reflecting on this important yet controversial statement I am reminded, among other things, of the separation that is supposed to exist between religion and state in our secular part of the world. Majorities in government here should champion the rights of minorities so as to guarantee their protection, safety and representation in our liberal democracy.

Fleshing out this separation further I am inclined to look at how religious definitions have cemented themselves into our legal system. Blurring the lines between definitions (Legal & Religious) supposedly does no harm to our Christian country but I remain unconvinced.

Concerningly during a recent Marriage Equality debate in Magherafelt District Council anti-LGBT flyers that quoted the Bible were passed around prior to the meeting. In the midst of the debate an Ulster Unionist councillor Jackie Crawford likened Homosexuality to a disease. He later stated that while he still opposed gay marriage, based on his reading of the bible, he regretted comparing same sex orientation to an illness.

Swiftly it is becoming clear to me and hopefully many members of the public that Northern Ireland will soon be facing a very serious legal dilemma given current legislation which legally impedes same-sex marriage.

Where are the public outcries I hear many of you ask?

Well as you would expect the LGBT community along with supporters from all walks of life have started an inspirational Equal Marriage campaign but this doesn't stem the worrying state of affairs unfolding where many appear to be falling in line with bigoted views similar to Ken Maginnis or the aforementioned Jackie Crawford.

Consequently the battle for achieving full Marriage Equality cannot be fought at local district councils as currently is the case, nor can the goals of a campaign simply focus on a shift in one piece of legislation. Of course it is overwhelming to see such support for marriage equality at council level the harsh reality is that only the Northern Ireland assembly can legalise same-sex marriage.

I recently wrote a short letter to a local newspaper discussing terminology as I believe compartmentalising the LGBT community by creating a separate but equal definition of marriage before the law (Gay Marriage) is completely inadequate. In order to change people's hearts and minds on this subject we need to set a legal precedent by pushing for the Northern Ireland assembly and then the whole of the UK to legally (not religiously) define Marriage as between two human beings effectively removing prohibitions on gender.

This idea came to me when reviewing the constitution of the Irish Republic which doesn't define marriage as the union of a male and female unlike Northern Ireland and UK where law dictates a union of two people can only ever be classified as 'marriage' when the parties are of opposite sex.

Creating an inclusive legal definition for marriage whilst repealing Northern Ireland's Marriage Order (2003) replacing it with something in keeping with our time, would not only engender true equality but also give protection for religious groups to select their position through an opt-in/opt-out clause which should keep people of faith relatively happy.

Imposing views and values onto people has never been a fruitful endeavour for anyone which is why we should oppose the religious impositions in the marriage order. If we adopt a hearts and minds approach to sensitive subjects such as this it permits us to deal with most qualms people will ever bring up on the matter.

Once marriage between human beings and not opposite gender is enshrined as a right then we need never vote on such again. After all that is the whole point of rights; you can't just vote to take them away from somebody at the majorities' convenience.

It is now up to the people of Northern Ireland to ask our assembly members to take bold steps for equality. Perhaps one day, in the near future, we will defeat prejudice and intolerance against the LGBT community for good and Homophobia won't ever be an acceptable replacement for sectarian hatred.