We need a balance in competing rights that protects conscience

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Michael Wardlow, the chief commissioner in the Equality Commission, was jubilant yesterday when an appeal court vindicated the commission’s stance in the ‘gay cake’ row.

The bakery had been found guilty of discrimination in an earlier case in relation to its refusal in 2014 to make a cake with a slogan in favour of gay marriage.

The commission had thrown its weight behind Gareth Lee, a gay customer of the bakery who had ordered the cake.

While Mr Wardlow was emphatic yesterday that the commission had been right to back the case, and fund their side of it to the tune of £88,000, he also struck a conciliatory note.

He acknowledged concern among faith groups about how equality powers might be used against them. “If you feel it has gone too far then that is a purpose for the civic debate,” he said. “And we are up for the civic debate because we do realise that some people are saying there is some mission creep here, that we have only got involved in religion and politics. Not so.”

This is a welcome statement, because a civic debate is needed. Tens of thousands of Christians do indeed fear mission creep.

A letter writer opposite poses the not unreasonable question of whether a Muslim baker would have been dragged through the courts. In theory of course a Muslim baker might have been so but in practice it is hard to imagine the authorities having dared to risk inflaming Islamic communities.

Christians believe they are easy targets. Last year, Pastor McConnell ended up in court over a hard hitting sermon he gave.

There is no question that both cases, while quite separate, involved thorny and complex areas of the law that touch on fundamental questions of freedom of religion and expression.

There are good reasons why discrimination in service provision is prohibited and why there is concern about grossly offensive communications. But in both cases, when principled Christians stood up to the law, the law looked cruel.

There needs to be much more debate and examination of how to find a balance in which conscience is rigorously protected.