A gay marriage supporting columnist who applauded the decision of a Balfast court to fine a Christian baker for refusing to bake a cake with a pro-gay marriage message, has changed his mind. He hasn’t changed his mind on gay marriage, mind you but just about the religious freedom issues.
In the next few years, many precedents will be set on this issue of religious freedom and it’s important we win these cases. Arguments like this can change minds. As Christians, I know we’re trying to win hearts and minds and souls. But for now, we must focus on minds.
Ashers’ religious justifications are, to my mind, theologically unsound. Nevertheless, on reflection the court was wrong to penalise Ashers and I was wrong to endorse its decision.
The law suit against the bakery was well-intended. It sought to challenge homophobia. But it was a step too far. It pains me to say this, as a long-time supporter of the struggle for LGBT equality in Northern Ireland, where same-sex marriage and gay blood donors remain banned. The equality laws are intended to protect people against discrimination. A business providing a public service has a legal duty to do so without discrimination based on race, gender, faith and sexuality.
However, the court erred by ruling that Lee was discriminated against because of his sexual orientation and political opinions.
The Ashers verdict could encourage far-right extremists to demand the promotion of anti-migrant and anti-Muslim opinions
His cake request was refused not because he was gay, but because of the message he asked for. There is no evidence that his sexuality was the reason Ashers declined his order. Despite this, Judge Isobel Brownlie said that refusing the pro-gay marriage slogan was unlawful indirect sexual orientation discrimination. On the question of political discrimination, the judge said Ashers had denied 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.” Brownlie thus 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 finding of political discrimination against Lee sets a worrying precedent. Northern Ireland’s laws against discrimination on the grounds of political opinion were framed in the context of decades of conflict. They were designed to heal the sectarian divide by preventing the denial of jobs, housing and services to people because of their politics. There was never an intention that this law should compel people to promote political ideas with which they disagreed.
The judge concluded that service providers are required to facilitate any “lawful” message, even if they have a conscientious objection. This raises the question: should Muslim printers be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed? Or Jewish ones publish the words of a Holocaust denier? Or gay bakers accept orders for cakes with homophobic slurs? If the Ashers verdict stands it could, for example, encourage far-right extremists to demand that bakeries and other service providers facilitate the promotion of anti-migrant and anti-Muslim opinions. It would leave businesses unable to refuse to decorate cakes or print posters with bigoted messages.
In my view, it is an infringement of freedom to require businesses to aid the promotion of ideas to which they conscientiously object. Discrimination against people should be unlawful, but not against ideas.