Most Rev Eamon Martin, Archbishop of Armagh, has written to the Northern Ireland Equality Commission seeking its advice over the refusal of the Belfast Telegraph to publish the recent statement of the Catholic Northern Bishops in advance of the NI Assembly elections on 2nd May 2022.
The statement shared the established and widely published position of the Catholic Church on a range of issues, including abortion, which the newspaper took objection to.
In a press statement, the Irish Bishops' Conference said despite the newspaper having accepted full payment for the requested statement to be published as an advertisement, it would not publish it unless the bishops made changes to their comments on abortion.
The bishops refused to do so, withdrew their request and asked for their money back. The Northern Catholic Bishops now want to know if there are consequences for the newspaper as they claim they have the right to "religious freedom and equality of treatment for people of faith when accessing services from a commercial organisation".
Noting that another newspaper, The Irish News, carried the advertisement without amendment, Archbishop Eamon said in a press statement:
"From our point of view the situation is a fairly straightforward case of a religious organisation having been refused a commercial service, after payment had been taken, unless the religious organisation was willing to change how its religious message was expressed.
"We believe it would be helpful for all parties, as well as for other faith groups who may wish to seek a similar commercial service in the future, for us to seek clarification and advice from the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and others about the situation that has arisen. We will consider our next steps when we have received this advice."
On 2nd May Archbishop Eamon aired his frustration about the issue on Twitter.
See the Northern @CatholicBishops #AE22 statement Make Your Voices Heard in @irish_news. Having initially agreed to publish the same ad, I’m disturbed by @BelTel’s refusal unless with this editorial interference & censorship. Protect #Unborn human life & #ReligiousFreedom pic.twitter.com/6Kl0nT2Oji— Eamon Martin (@ArchbishopEamon) May 2, 2022
The Belfast Telegraph responded in an article saying it stands by its decison and did not attempt to change the Church's stance on abortion.
It said in a statement on 2nd May: "All advertising containing uncontested opinion and views, especially ahead of an election, is subject to review before publishing. We are subject to regulation by the Advertising Standards Authority.
"We are surprised that Archbishop Martin took to Twitter to highlight this rather than speak directly to us.
"The suggested edits did not alter the Church's core anti-abortion message."
The Belfast Telegraph told Premier it has nothing to add to its 2nd May statement.
The full text of the letter from Archbishop Martin to Dr Evelyn Collins, Chief Executive of the Equality Commission NI, is provided below.
28 July 2022
Dear Dr Collins,
I am writing to you on behalf of my colleagues, the Northern Catholic Bishops, inviting the comment and advice of the Equality Commission on issues we believe are of fundamental importance to equality of treatment and respect for religious freedom, arising from a request we made to the Belfast Telegraph to carry, as a paid advertisement, our widely published pre-NI Assembly election pastoral reflection, Make Your Voices Heard.
As you will see from the attached correspondence, the Belfast Telegraph initially accepted full payment for the requested advertisement, only to subsequently refuse to carry it unless a number of amendments to the long-established religious opinion held by the Catholic Church, in the statement, were made to the satisfaction of the newspaper's editor. When we refused to make the
requested changes to our religious opinion, to accommodate the opinion of the editor, our payment was returned. It is important to note that another newspaper, The Irish News, did accept and publish the advertisement, without amendment.
We understand that it is not within the remit of the Equality Commission to pursue legal cases on behalf of groups, as opposed to individuals, and we wish to make it clear that, while we are seeking our own legal advice on the issues concerned, this is not our purpose in writing to you.
Rather, given the fundamental nature of the human rights and equality issues this case has given rise to, as well as its wider implications for the participation of faith-based groups in public life and the right of faith-based groups to fair and equal access to commercial services, we would ask if the Equality Commission could offer its comment and/or advice on the following questions specifically:
1. Do you agree that commercial organisations providing paid advertising services have an obligation to offer those services to individuals, and groups, on the basis of equality and without discrimination on the basis of the religious views of the individual or group seeking these services?
2. What guidance does, or can the Equality Commission offer, to commercial organisations providing advertising services in respect to refusing to carry such advertisements on the basis of the religious opinion expressed, where such an advertisement satisfies all other statutory advertising requirements?
We believe there are many in the Catholic community, and in other faith-based communities, who are deeply concerned about the decision of the Belfast Telegraph to refuse to carry our paid-for advertisement without amendment. On the face of it, it would appear we were refused a commercial service on the basis of our well-established, and widely published, religious opinion. For this reason, we believe it is important that we engage the various statutory agencies with a responsibility for providing guidance to commercial and public bodies on such matters, in a public discussion on the principles and rights involved. To that end, it is our intention to make it public that we are seeking the comment and advice of the Equality Commission on the situation that has arisen.
If you believe it would be helpful at any point to meet with me and some of our representatives to discuss the issues and circumstances giving rise to them, in more detail, please do not hesitate to let me know.
With every good wish,
Archbishop of Armagh