Around 60 people attended a public meeting in Carrickfergus Town Hall about a proposed ‘conscience clause’ bill at the Assembly.
They heard DUP MLA Paul Givan explain the reasons for bringing forward the Private Member’s Bill.
He spoke about the specifics of the proposed legislation and what it would mean in practice.
Mr Givan emphasised that he is willing to work with others to try and find a way to ensure that the rights of those of faith can be protected.
The Antrim Street audience was told by Mid and East Antrim Councillor Gordon Lyons of the need for legislative change, citing the Equality Commission’s action against Ashers Bakery over its refusal to make a cake with a slogan supporting gay marriage and the experience of faith-based adoption agencies.
He highlighted the example of how a “reasonable amendment clause” had worked in Canada and how Lady Hale, deputy president of the UK Supreme Court, has said that the law has not yet found a way to strike a reasonable balance between competing rights.
Speaking to the Times after last Thursday’s meeting, Mr Lyons said: “We have been overwhelmed by the many letters and emails of support from those who were unable to be at the meeting and there is obviously great interest in the proposed bill.
“Many people were asking questions about exactly what the legislation should look like but there was agreement that action needed to be taken to ensure that a case like Ashers would not end up in the courts again.
“Essentially this debate is about the kind of society we live in. Do we want to live in one in which people have to make a choice between continuing in their business or profession or following their conscience? That does not sound like a pluralist or liberal society.
“I do not want to live in a community where all have to conform to the same thoughts and ideals, but rather I want to live in one where there is space for difference. That is what this legislation is about.” Consultation on the proposal closed on Friday and responses are now being considered. Sinn Fein has indicated it will block the bill via a petition of concern. However, two of the main churches have indicated their interest in developing legislation around the issue, as Mr Lyons explained.
“The recent support from the Roman Catholic church and Presbyterian Church in Ireland for the concept of reasonable accommodation is welcome and Paul will be working to see what changes are necessary to make this bill better,” said Mr Lyons.