A COURT decision that the Belfast-based Ashers Bakery had discriminated a gay man by refusing to ice a cake with a pro-gay-rights slogan has been upheld by the court of appeal in Northern Ireland.
The ruling has re-ignited a debate on the rights of freedom of speech and conscience in Northern Ireland, where same-sex marriage is banned, and also in the Republic, where it is freely available.
The proprietors of the bakery, Daniel and Amy McArthur, had appealed against a ruling by Belfast County Court that, in 2014, they had discriminated against a gay activist, Gareth Lee, in refusing to provide him with a cake that had the slogan on it “Support gay marriage”. They said that doing so would have been contrary to the Christian faith, and against their personal beliefs. After the court verdict, Mr McArthur said that he and his family were “deeply disappointed”.
Mr Lee said he was “relieved, but also very grateful to the Court of Appeal for the judgment, which I welcome, obviously”. His case had been taken by the Equality Commission of Northern Ireland, whose director, Dr Michael Wardlow, said afterwards that the Commission supported people whether they had faith or not.
The judgment, he said, had clarified the law. “It means that anyone, whether you are straight, gay, lesbian, or bisexual, can walk in to receive a service without asking yourself the question, ‘I wonder do the views that I hold — religious, political views, or my sexual orientation — somehow conflict with those of the people who run this organisation.’”
The McArthurs are now consulting their legal team about whether to take the case to the Supreme Court. They have been supported throughout by the British Christian Institute, which is helping to bear the estimated £150,000 legal costs, and by the Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland, whose poll, conducted during the case, showed that almost 90 per cent of those questioned supported the couple.
The director of Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland, Peter Lynas, a former barrister, said: “Ashers Bakery would not have made this cake for anyone, gay or straight. And yet they are being accused of treating one group of people differently than another. A law that was originally designed to protect a minority is being used by the new majority to force their views on to others. What was, at first, presented as being about protecting the LGBT community against state discrimination, is now seeking to use state power to punish those who refuse to support same-sex marriage. This is plainly wrong.
“Mr Lee should be able to walk into any business and not be discriminated against, and Ashers Bakery should be able to retain their distinctive Christian ethos. Ashers had served Mr Lee before, and would gladly serve him again. They have no issue with Mr Lee: their objection was to the message on the cake.”
The human-rights activist Peter Tatchell said that, although he had originally supported the judgment in Belfast County Court against Ashers, he had changed his mind. The case, he said, was not about sexuality discrimination, but discrimination against an idea, not against a person.
“On the question of political discrimination, the judge said Ashers had denied Mr Lee service based on his request for a message supporting same-sex marriage. She noted: ‘If the plaintiff had ordered a cake with the words ‘Support marriage’ or ‘Support heterosexual marriage’, I have no doubt that such a cake would have been provided.
“[Judge] Brownlie therefore concluded that, by refusing to provide a cake with a pro-gay marriage wording, Ashers had treated him less favourably, contrary to the law.
“This may be a case of differential treatment. However, it was not discrimination against views held or expressed by Mr Lee, but against words he wanted on a cake. Moreover, the law against political discrimination was meant to protect people with differing political views, not to force others to further political views to which they conscientiously object.”
Mr Tatchell said that the judge had concluded that service providers were required by law to facilitate any “lawful” message, even if they had a conscientious objection to it. “This begs the question: Will gay bakers have to accept orders for cakes with homophobic slurs? I don’t think LGBT people should be forced to promote anti-gay messages.”
The judgment, he said, “would leave businesses unable to refuse to decorate cakes, print posters, and emblazon mugs with bigoted messages”.
Speaking on behalf of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Revd Dr Norman Hamilton expressed concern about “the apparent limiting of freedom of conscience and freedom of expression which are the hallmarks of any democratic society”.
The chairman of the Church of Ireland’s Church and Society Commission, the Revd Adrian Dorrian, said: “It is a worthy thing that the law in our society seeks to protect those at risk of discrimination and marginalisation. However, our society also makes room for freedom of speech, and for conscientious objection. The difficulty in this instance is that one set of rights has come up against another.
”I wish to commend the McArthur family and Mr Lee for the dignified way in which they have carried themselves throughout these proceedings, and I urge all Christian people to continue to hold everyone involved with this case in their prayers.”