Rejecting Ashers bakery appeal over ‘gay cake’ is dangerous

By Savi Hensman
October 25, 2016

The court of appeal in Belfast has upheld a ruling against a bakery which refused to bake a cake with the slogan ‘Support gay marriage’. I am not the only pro-equal marriage activist to find this alarming.

“This verdict is a defeat for freedom of expression. As well as meaning that Ashers can be legally forced to aid the promotion of same-sex marriage against their wishes, it also implies that gay bakers could be forced by law to decorate cakes with homophobic slogans,” wrote Peter Tatchell in the Independent.

“Although I strongly disagree with Ashers’ opposition to marriage equality, in a free society neither they nor anyone else should be compelled to facilitate a political idea they oppose.”

Originally he backed Northern Ireland’s Equality Commission, which had taken the case on behalf of Gareth Lee, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights activist, who placed the order. But Tatchell changed his mind, since “Discrimination against people should be always unlawful but not discrimination against ideas and opinions.”

In 2015, when the original ruling was made, I wrote for Ekklesia that “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.” (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21722)

I wrote, “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.”

To “do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7.12) is good ethical advice. And with regard to the law, it should be remembered that judgments can set dangerous precedents. Weakening human rights puts minorities, in particular, at risk.

In Northern Ireland, discrimination on the grounds of political opinion is unlawful, unlike the rest of the UK. The court of appeal took the view that the refusal to bake the cake was also direct discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation – and that businesses could be forced to promote views which went against their own deeply-held beliefs.

The crude notion of a conflict between a “religious community” and “faith community” was reflected in the latest ruling.  Supposedly “The benefit from the message or slogan on the cake could only accrue to gay or bisexual people… 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.”

But allowing marriage equality, I believe, benefits the community as a whole. Most people who back it are heterosexual. At the same time there are people who are LGBT who believe that marriage is for heterosexuals only. The issue is one of belief, not sexual orientation.

Worryingly, the judgment summary also says: “Anyone who applies a religious aspect or a political aspect to the provision of services may be caught by equality legislation… In the present case the appellants might elect not to provide a service that involves any religious or political message.  What they may not do is provide a service that only reflects their own political or religious message in relation to sexual orientation.” So LGBT rights supporters in certain lines of work might also be at risk of being forced to assist propaganda efforts against equality and justice.

For instance an interpreter might be compelled to sing the praises of a dictator who brutally mistreats LGBT citizens or indeed Assad’s bombing of Syrian civilians.

I believe in women’s right to terminate their pregnancies safely, rather than the backstreets methods that have caused so much suffering. But forcing a graphic artist or printer to aid a campaign for ‘Free abortion on demand’ is wrong.

A Muslim or Christian looking for casual work should not be made to walk the streets with a sandwich board demanding that any public expression of religion, such as wearing a hijab or cross, should be banned.

The Ashers verdict is well-intentioned. But the effects are repressive and divisive. I hope it is overturned by the supreme court.

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© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion.

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.