Ashers bakery ruling sows confusion about discrimination

By Savi Hensman
May 19, 2015

A Northern Ireland court found Ashers Baking Company guilty of discrimination after it refused to bake a cake calling for same-sex couples to be allowed to marry. But the news is not necessarily as good as it might seem for those wanting full inclusion.

At Belfast Crown Court, District Judge Isobel Brownlie ruled that the bakery had unlawfully discriminated on the grounds of sexual orientation, and also of political opinion or religious belief.

She awarded £500 damages to Gareth Lee, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights activist. Northern Ireland’s Equality Commission had taken the case on his behalf after the bakery refused to bake a cake with the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’.

The McArthur family, who run the bakery, oppose marriage equality because of their religious beliefs. Many other Christians (including me) would see their opposition as wrong, believing on grounds of faith that loving committed relationships should be celebrated. But being wrong should not always be unlawful.

Unhelpfully, this case has confused treating people less favourably because of who they are – which is rightly unlawful – with reluctance to promote a cause, in this case a campaign to change the law.

Earlier the state had refused to introduce equal marriage. It seems ironic that it is now punishing those who share its own stance.

“I believe the defendants did have the knowledge that the plaintiff was gay,” the judge said. But in reality many heterosexuals are in favour of letting same-sex couples marry in law, while some LGBT people are against this.

If the bakery had refused to bake a birthday cake for someone who was gay, or even an anniversary cake for a same-sex couple, that would have been direct discrimination.

Admittedly it can be especially painful to those of us who are LGBT, and/or women, when other people fail to see the value of full inclusion in all walks of life. But giving governments too much power, in a way that interferes with freedoms of expression and belief, is not the answer.

When those in charge can enforce their authority without respecting the rights of the people over whom they rule, minorities are especially at risk.

If someone were to refuse to sell me flowers because I am lesbian, minority ethnic or Christian, that would be unacceptable. That does not mean that I should be able to demand that a florist who is atheist prepare a huge floral display stating “Jesus is Lord”!

By confusing ideology with identity, the case has already triggered a backlash among those who feel that their freedom of thought is under attack. The judgement makes this worse. The impact is already being felt elsewhere in the UK (though the law is rather different) and beyond.

If the ruling is reversed on appeal, this might be seen as giving the go-ahead to actual direct discrimination. Meanwhile, it unhelpfully creates a perception of competing rights, when in reality equality laws should be seen to protect everyone.

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely-published Christian commentator of politics, religion, welfare and allied topics. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the care and equalities sector.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.