A motion by the Sinn Fein party called for marriage equality “for everyone regardless of their sexual orientation,” and would have provided religious exemptions allowing the freedom of churches to practice and define marriage as they choose.
The issue sparked impassioned debate, with protests outside the legislature and verbal clashes between campaigners in favor of or opposed to the change, reported the Belfast Telegraph.
Today’s petition of concern at the Assembly tabled by the largest unionist party, the Democratic Unionists, ensured Sinn Fein’s motion would be defeated after a majority of unionists failed to back the change.
John O’Doherty, director of the Rainbow Project health organisation for gay men and a rights campaigner, said he would continue to press for change.
“This will be won slowly so we appreciate every vote that we got. We are disappointed with the outcome. It has always been a difficult march towards equality here but we will continue to fight the good fight.”
The Presbyterian Church in Ireland and Roman Catholic bishops had been urging members of the Assembly not to support the motion.
Last year, lawmakers voted to make Northern Ireland the only part of the United Kingdom where LGBT people are excluded from the United Kingdom’s proposed marriage equality, which was passed in the House of Commons in February.
As late as 1982 gay sex was still a criminal activity in Northern Ireland because the country was not included in the UK’s gay law reforms of the 1960s.
Gay rights campaigner Jeff Dudgeon took a case to the European court of human rights in 1981 which forced the UK government, in the face of opposition from unionist politicians such as the Rev Ian Paisley, to decriminalize homosexuality in Northern Ireland.
Amnesty International has warned of a likely legal challenge.