Fionola Meredith: Gay cake ruling is all wrong and this is why

The ruling enshrines the principle that the law can compel you to promote causes with which you absolutely disagree

Ashers, a bakery run by an evangelical Christian family, was guilty of direct discrimination against Gareth Lee, a gay rights activist who requested a cake with the slogan ‘support gay marriage’ iced on it.  (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Ashers, a bakery run by an evangelical Christian family, was guilty of direct discrimination against Gareth Lee, a gay rights activist who requested a cake with the slogan ‘support gay marriage’ iced on it. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

 

Do you believe in freedom of conscience? Do you believe that individuals, businesses and institutions should be able to decide for themselves which political messages they wish to support?

If so, then you should be appalled at the decision by Belfast’s Court of Appeal that Ashers, a bakery run by an evangelical Christian family, was guilty of direct discrimination against Gareth Lee, a gay rights activist who requested a cake with the slogan ‘support gay marriage’ iced on it.

The bakery refused Lee’s order, on the grounds that it conflicted with its conscientious religious beliefs. Supported by the North’s Equality Commission, Lee took successful legal action against Ashers, and the appeal court has now upheld that earlier verdict. It is official: if a customer asks for a cake with a political message on it, he or she cannot be denied. The cake must be baked, iced and delivered, regardless of the sentiments espoused on it.

Following the abstruse logic of the three appeal court judges, “the reason that the order was cancelled was that the appellants would not provide a cake with a message supporting a right to marry for those of a particular sexual orientation. This was a case of association with the gay and bisexual community and the protected personal characteristic was the sexual orientation of that community. Accordingly this was direct discrimination.”

At first glance, the gay cake saga might indeed look like a classic example of bigoted religious conservatives indulging in a spot of blatant anti-gay discrimination. I’ll admit, that’s the way it struck me initially. I whole-heartedly support marriage equality and I am a long-time defender of gay rights in Northern Ireland. I write often about the death-grip which religious fundamentalism maintains on the politics of the North. Put it this way, I wouldn’t thank you for an Ashers cup-cake. If I believed for one moment that Ashers had discriminated directly against Gareth Lee, in the sense of refusing to serve him because he was gay, I would be protesting outside the bakery right now.

But that is not what happened. It was the political message that Ashers objected to, not the customer himself. It’s not even clear whether the bakery owners knew he was gay. A straight supporter of marriage equality - me, for example - could just as easily have ordered that cake. Admittedly, it must have been embarrassing and unpleasant for Mr Lee to have his order cancelled (he testified that it made him feel like “a lesser person”) but there are far more fundamental freedoms at stake here than one person’s feelings.

The ruling is not a victory for justice or equality. Rather, it enshrines the principle that the law can compel you to promote causes with which you absolutely disagree.

And that is very bad news for all of us: gay, straight, religious, non-religious, whatever. The answer to old-fashioned religious intolerance is not more intolerance.

Consider the potential consequences. Based on this precedent, what is to stop an anti-abortion group demanding that a printer produce doctored images of aborted foetuses? Or, to use a now classic example, what is to prevent a Muslim printer being forced to provide cartoons of the prophet Mohammed? Could a Jewish baker be compelled to provide a grotesque Holocaust cake, celebrating the deaths of millions?

The veteran gay rights activist Peter Tatchell, who began by supporting the prosecution against Ashers, but ended up opposing it on precisely these grounds, said: “in my view, it is an infringement of freedom to require private businesses to aid the promotion of ideas to which they conscientiously object. Discrimination against people should be unlawful but not discrimination against ideas and opinions.”

From the very start, this divisive case has been represented as a battle between Christians, who (quite reasonably) request the right to express their religious views, and the LGBT community, who (equally reasonably) want to be treated with the same degree of respect and accommodation as everyone else in society.

But that is to miss a more essential point. This is about all our freedoms. You do not have to be a born-again Christian to condemn such a dangerous, authoritarian verdict. You merely need to care about liberty, and the right to act in accordance with your own beliefs - whatever they may be.

Fionola Meredith is a journalist

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