17. Memorandum from the Church and Government
Committee of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland
THE CHURCH AND GOVERNMENT COMMITTEE'S REPORT
TO THE JUNE 2001 GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN
IRELAND CONTAINED THE FOLLOWING.
Submission to the Northern Ireland Human
Rights Commission on a proposed Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland
1. EXTRACT FROM
1.1 "The new Northern Ireland Human
Rights Commission will be invited to consult and to advise on
the scope for defining, in Westminster legislation, rights supplementary
to those in the European Convention on Human Rights, to reflect
the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, drawing as appropriate
on international instruments and experience. The additional rights
to reflect the principles of mutual respect for the identity and
ethos of both communities and parity of esteem, andtaken
together with the European Convention on Human Rightsto
constitute a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.
Among the issues for consideration by the
Commission will be:
The formulation of a general obligation on
government and public bodies fully to respect, on the basis of
equality of treatment, the identity and ethos of both communities
in Northern Ireland; and
A clear formulation of the rights not to be
discriminated against and to equality of opportunity in both the
public and private sectors".
1.2 The Church and the Government Committee
notes that any recommendations concern "rights supplementary
to those in the European Convention on Human Rights, to reflect
the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland".
1.3 The Convention on Human Rights, which
has been incorporated into British Law in the Human Rights Act
of 1998, is a comprehensive document incorporating 18 articles,
some of them containing considerable detail.
1.4 The issues surrounding Human Rights
are of enormous importance and we welcome the concerns which underlie
the European Convention and the proposed Bill of Rights for Northern
Ireland. However we recognise that there are some dangers which
need to be avoided if the Bill of Rights is to enhance freedom
and overcome division.
2. PEOPLE ARE
2.1 The dignity of the human person arises
from the fact that we are made in the image of God, which is a
prior consideration to issues of class, race, religion or sexual
2.2 The God in whose image we are made has
existed from the beginning in the unity and community of the Father,
of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
2.3 We believe that human rights proceed
from the social nature of humanity (God combines unity and relationship
within himself). Everyone is a person-in-relationship whose well
being cannot be attained alone. To be human is to have rights
which are to be respected and to have responsibilities which are
to be freely undertaken.
2.4 The individual's dignity and worth,
and consequent rights and responsibilities, derive from such a
2.5 We believe that individuals are to be
located within communities where rights are to be recognised and
responsibilities accepted. We are very suspicious of reasoning
which detaches individuals or groups from wider communities or
which detaches rights from responsiblities or elevates rights
above responsibilities. For example the perceived rights for individuals
to engage in serial sexual relationships, all, or some, of which
may produce children, may militate against the rights of children
to be raised in secure and loving families where they are cared
for by both of their parents.
2.6 Christian concern about human rights
also proceeds from the reality that human dignity and our social
relationships are frequently violated, and that restraints of
law are necessary to prevent this from happening. In this perspective
human rights are about necessary protection human beings need
from each other: both in the individual and corporate sense. Christian
faith, however, warns us against any utopianism in regard to human
rights' concerns being able to cure all social ills.
2.7 Minorities need to be protected from
the tyranny of the majority, even if democratically elected. For
example, many Presbyterians resisted Home Rule in the early part
of the last century because they believed that a democratically
elected government for the whole of Ireland would not necessarily
respect the rights of dissenting non-conformist minorities. Majoritarian
rule can be experienced as exclusive and excluding to minorities.
2.8 We also know of the failure in communist
dominated Romania to respect the religious, cultural and linguistic
rights of the Hungarian speaking, and largely Reformed, people
3. GENERAL CONSIDERATIONS
3.1 A Bill of Rights ought to be inspirational
and forward looking and therefore be briefly stated. Rights of
freedoms conferred by a Bill of Rights should maximise and not
minimise the liberty of citizens.
3.2 The problem with a Bill of Rights specifically
tailored to the current needs of Northern Ireland may result in
entrenching division, rather than overcoming it. Is this the time
to enact a very comprehensive Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland,
additional to the Human Rights Act of 1998, when it is not deemed
appropriate to do so for the rest of the United Kingdom or for
the Republic of Ireland?
3.3 Since the rights of an idividual or
a group are seldom absolute and must be balanced against the rights
of other individuals or groups, should a Bill of Rights for Northern
Ireland seek to be too specific, it will be necessary within the
Bill of Rights to protect the rights of the other individuals
or groups. Is this what a Bill of Rights is intended to do?
3.4 Rights are sometimes defined over against
the activities of other individuals or groups who may well claim
an inherent right for their activities. Care needs to be exercised
in formulating a Bill of Rights which so highlights individual
and group rights that the overall well-being of the community
is further fractured. The rights of particuar groups and individuals
need to be balanced and judged with proportionality, taking account
of the rights of other groups and individuals. An important and
cotentious example of this lies in the area of Parades and Protests.
Will the Bill of Rights alleviate the problem in the absence of
the contending parties reaching an acceptable compromise?
3.5 Any recommendations should enhance the
overall concept of a single community marked by diversity, rather
than a fractured community hell bent on asserting diverse rights
regardless of the need to foster relationships based on matuality
3.6 Discourse which is dominated by rights
to the subordination of all else can result in a society marked
by continuous conflict, resolved not by love, respect and mutual
accommodation but by power struggles or endless litigation.
3.7 In Christian thinking it is sometimes
better not to insist on the exercise of a perceived right in the
interests of the overall well being of a society. If God had not
set aside his rights, humanity could not be redeemed. To voluntarily
set aside one's rights is not the same as having them denied.
3.8 It is important to distinguish between
what is desirable in an imperfect world from what might be a right
in a perfect world. What is desirable may not necessarily be a
3.9 Perceived rights may sometimes have
to be balanced against a realistic assessment of available resources.
Two current examples are:
(a) The right to have a minority language
officially accommodated, as distinct from permitting its use or
not outlawing its use, may rightly depend upon the numbers of
people involved and the expense incurred in implementing the policy.
(b) The right to have government support
for a particular form of education may rightly depend upon the
numbers of people seeking such an educational facility and the
amount of money available in a finite overall budget. If one group
is granted such a privilegeor is it a right?others
may demand the same rightor is it a privilege?
4.1 The post-reformation concern of protestant
churches focussed on the right to freedom of religion. To claim
this for oneself imposes a moral obligation to defend religious
freedom for others, including the rights of people who choose
not to identify with any religion.
4.2 Recognition of the right to freedom
of religion involves the corollary of the social acceptance of
a general duty on the part of the wider society to respect and
to act within reason to protect the right.
4.3 From the code of the Presbyterian Church
11. It is the privilege, right and duty of everyone
to examine the Scriptures personally, and each individual is bound
to submit to their authority.
13. . . . the church holds that, although civil
rulers are bound to render obedience to Christ in their own province,
yet they ought not to attempt in any way to constrain anyone's
religious beliefs, or invade rights of conscience."
4.4 Religious belief and practices are normally
exercised corporately in an institutional form involving disciplines,
structures, moral norms and ethical instruction. The ability of
religious bodies to adopt and maintain these is an essential part
of their freedom. This may involve granting them, where necessary,
partial exemption from the obligtion to open their corporate life
to equal access and equal treatment in respect of employment.
This could involve the right of churches to refuse to employ,
in certain circumstances, heterosexual people who live together
outside marriage or people living in same-sex realationships,
or individuals whose moral behaviour on other grounds offends
Christian practice. This is a practical manifestation of a religious
body exercising its corporate conscience on what might be currently
4.5 While such an exemption might be deemed
appropriate for a religious body, it is not to sanction discrimination
in general employment.
4.6 The Church and Government Committee
supports the submission of the four church leaders in their statement
"There has been an ongoing recognition at
a European and international level that churches should have the
right to protect the ethos of their various institutions and this
would include the recruitment of staff . . .
The four church leaders consider that it is of
fundamental importance to them that the Bill of Rights adopted
in Northern Ireland should reflect the international recognition
of each denomination's right to practise its religion corporately;
to pursue corporate activities and to protect its own individual
It is vital that the Bill of Rights for Northern
Ireland does not provide, and is not preceived to provide, a charter
for the secularisation of social witness of churches and church
organisations either directly by the courts or indirectly by the
imposition of conditions by public bodies charged with funding
private sector providers to act on behalf of the state."
2002 GENERAL ASSEMBLY
11. "We want justice" can be a
call to take the past seriously or it can be used as a weapon
with which to beat people we do not like. "If we acknowlege
the God of the Bible, we are committed to struggle for justice
in society. Justice means giving to each his due. Our problem
(as seen in the light of the gospel) is that each of us over estimates
what is due to him as compared with what is due to his neighbour
. . .. If I do not acknowledge a justice which judges the justice
for which I fight, I am an agent not of justice but of lawless
tyranny" (Leslie Newbigin)
12. "We want peace" can be a legitimate
yearning to leave a troubled past and a difficult present behind,
or it may be little more than a desire to be left alone with privilege
13. "Justice alone" can be one
of the most divisive influences, as "peace alone" can
be the peace of the graveyard, full of decay and dead men's bones.
Justice and peace should walk together down a long road in the
service of reconciliation. In God's way, justice is linked with
mercy; justice not for its own sake but for the peace of the world
and the restoration of relationships, sundered by sin.
14. ". . . reconciliation, as a central
theological concept, has an inalienable social dimension. . .
.. One needs to explicate in social terms the relationship between
grace and justice that lies at the heart of reconciliation. As
a result, justice would become a subordinate rather than a primary
category around which social engagement is organised; or rather,
the struggle for justice would be understood as a dimension of
the pursuit of reconciliation whose ultimate goal is community
of love" (Miroslav Volf).
15. The important issues of Equality and
Human Rights cannot be severed from the relationships between
individuals and between groups of people. As Equality cannot discount
distinctiveness neither can Human Rights disregard reponsibilities.
Either, or both, can be so relentlessly pursued that relationships
may be left in disarray. On the other hand, patience and forbearance
may lead us to a degree of empathy for one another where, insight,
confession and generosity might be more readily forthcoming. Patient
forbearance may be the means of opening space for building relationships,
which will facilitate both justice and peace.
APPENDIX E: REPORT
28 FEBRUARY 2002
E1. Since the last meeting of the Board,
most of the work of the Committee has been taken up with complex
and important issues connected with the Equality Commission and
the NI Human Rights Commission. By the time the Board meets the
Committee will have met with the Chief Commissioners of both bodies
at which meetings they will have been joined by representatives
of the Board of Finance and Administration.
E2. Having previously made a submission
to the NI Human Rights Commission, in which the Committee drew
attention to the importance of Human Rights, a response has been
submitted to the subsequent discussion document "Making a
Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland". Copies of the Committee's
six-page response will be available at the Board meeting for any
member who wishes to have one. Our principal concerns are that
the proposals as set forth are maximalist rather than minimalist
in their detailed provisions, the result of which may be the encouragement
of a litigious society; go far beyond "the particular circumstances
of Northern Ireland"; focus to strongly on rights with the
barest of references to responsibilities; fail to follow all the
exceptions clauses in the European Employment Directive.
E3. Discussion will take place with the
Equality Commission concerning the details of the "Position
PaperThe Single Equality Bill". While being supportive
of the concept of equality and the entitlement of individuals
to protection from discrimination and the importance of handling
difference constructively, faith based communities are entitled
to maintain their own ethos and identity. This is part of the
valuing of diversity in society. The issue is how these differing
claims are to be balanced. We would have concerns about the extension
of equality legislation to volunteers. Churches have large numbers
of volunteers and the extension of legislation in this area could
pose huge difficulties.
E4. Both Commissions are dealing with matters
which are of importance to the Presbyterian Church. The complexity
is compounded by the fact that there are Northern Ireland Assembly,
Westminster and European Union elements to the issues.
2002 GENERAL ASSEMBLY
9. That the General Assembly affirming that
everyone is made in the image of God and the consequent importance
of respect for human rights as well as our duties to God and to
one another, call upon the Human Rights Commissions in Northern
Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to give equal weight to Human
Rights and our duties to one another.
10. That the General Assembly, affirming
that everyone is made in the image of God and that the worth of
every human being derives from this fact, welcome the increasing
awareness of the importance of equality but ask the Equality Commission
to have regard to the importance of diversity and the distinctive
contribution which faith communities make to society and to recognise
that faith communities are entitled to maintain their ethos and
26 November 2002