Comment: If the Ashers gay cake appeal is lost, freedom of religion has been banished

Ahead of today's ruling in the Ashers gay cake row appeal, PETER LYNAS, a former barrister and director of the Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland, argues that forcing someone to promote a view that they fundamentally disagree with is the antithesis of a free and fair society ...
Ashers bakery owners Daniel McArthur and his wife Amy at an earlier court hearingAshers bakery owners Daniel McArthur and his wife Amy at an earlier court hearing
Ashers bakery owners Daniel McArthur and his wife Amy at an earlier court hearing

Mel and Sue won’t be there, but the judges have conferred and we will know today who has won the Great Northern Irish Bake Off.

It is worth reminding ourselves of the journey so far.

Gareth Lee is arguing that a gay man must be able to go into any business safe in the knowledge that they will be served.

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The owners of Ashers are arguing that a business has a right not to be forced to produce certain products especially if they are against their religious beliefs.

Let’s look at a different example – its what lawyers call a comparator. If I, as a straight guy, ordered a cake with slogan saying ‘Support Gay Marriage’, Ashers would have declined my order.

Discrimination requires people to be treated differently. As Mr Lee and I would have been treated the same, there is by definition no discrimination.

The strange thing is that the Equality Commission argument is that I would have been discriminated against on the grounds of sexual orientation. If you are confused, you are not alone.

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Stranger still, the owners of Ashers did not know Mr Lee’s sexual orientation, but that doesn’t seem to matter either.

The judge in the lower court found that “support for same sex marriage was indissociable from sexual orientation”. This despite the fact that the majority of people who support same sex marriage are heterosexual. The Office of National Statistics found that 1.3% of the population is LGB and yet some polls suggest the majority of people might support same sex marriage, while of course, some within the LGB community oppose same sex marriage.

Ashers would not have made this cake for anyone, gay or straight. Despite this, they are accused of discrimination – treating one group of people differently than another. A law designed to protect a minority is now being used by the new majority to force their views on others.

What began as a battle to remove state discrimination against the LGBT community, now seeks to use state power to punish those who refuse to support same-sex marriage. This is what John Stuart Mill warned of when he spoke of “the tyranny of prevailing opinion”.

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Mr Lee should able to walk into any business and not be discriminated against. Had Ashers refused to serve Mr Lee simply because of his sexual orientation, then a fine of £500 would be far too small. But they had served him before and would serve him again. Ashes have no issue with Mr Lee, their objection is to the message on the cake.

Should a business be forced to promote a cause it disagrees with? The law, which rightly protects people from discrimination, has now been extended to protect ideas. The law which rightly monitors who businesses serve, is now determining what businesses sell. The customer is always right, was advice for those in selling, it is now the law.

With respect to religion, a law designed to protect the belief of the customer has been twisted and used against a business owner. Mr Lee’s beliefs were not relevant to the decision not to produce the cake – they were and remain unknown. Instead the religion of the bakers, which should have offered them protection under the law, is being used as a weapon against them.

Could a printer refuse to print a leaflet advertising abortion services because of their religious or political beliefs? Is a Muslim newsagent guilty of discrimination for refusing to stock pornography for religious reasons whilst selling other magazines?

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Ashers discriminated against an idea, not a person. While the law rightly prohibits the latter, the former is not only allowed, but encouraged in a healthy democratic society; if for no other reasons than that some ideas are bad.

Many people don’t realise that Mr Lee had used the bakery before, and the company was, and remains, happy to serve him. However, they will not, and should not, be forced to promote a view contrary to their firmly held religious beliefs.

If this appeal is lost, freedom of conscience and religion will effectively be banished from the public square for everyone in Northern Ireland. This is not about special protection for Christians. The mark of a democratic society is that competing views are discussed and debated. Forcing someone to promote a view that they fundamentally disagree with is the antithesis of a free and fair society.

Let’s hope justice is done.