OPINION: Gay cake decision means all our freedoms are being eroded

Daniel McArthur (director of Ashers Bakery) with wife Amy outside court
Daniel McArthur (director of Ashers Bakery) with wife Amy outside court

It is unusual for a legal decision to attract such widespread criticism from parties as diverse as Peter Tatchell, the Telegraph, the Guardian, and the Independent.

The Ashers case is in reality about freedom, not discrimination, though the Court of Appeal, in what has been described as a thin decision, seems to have skirted this vital point.

Peter Lynas, NI Director, Evangelical Alliance. Undated pic sent in by EA on Nov 26 2015

Peter Lynas, NI Director, Evangelical Alliance. Undated pic sent in by EA on Nov 26 2015

The court pushed the boundaries of interpretation to such a degree that most people will struggle to make sense of the law - potentially undermining its validity.

It is agreed that the McArthurs had served Mr Lee before and did not know he was gay. The Court of Appeal decided that that did not matter due to the concept of associative discrimination.

In other words, the result would be the same even if the customer was a heterosexual supporter of gay rights.

So you can be guilty of discrimination based on sexual orientation for refusing to serve someone who is straight!

As to freedom of speech, the McArthurs argued for the freedom not to be forced to speak out in favour of a cause they did not believe in. The court held that icing a message does not mean you support it, drawing an analogy with making a cake supporting a particular football team.

This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the importance of religion and ignores the evidence that the family felt icing the cake would show support.

Rather than politely decline to facilitate the expression of Mr Lee’s message, the McArthurs and all bespoke businesses have been told to draft a raft of policies to cover every conceivable scenario. Photographers, jewellery designers and printers will all be forced to provide whatever service is asked of them unless they have an explicit policy allowing them to decline.

In Ashers’ case, they now only make birthday cakes to order - they have been forced out of rest of the bespoke market. However, many have gone out of their way to support the business.

The McArthurs and many of their staff are Christians who understand their work to be an act of worship to God.

The courts have sought to restrict worship to religious services but the Bible is explicit that Christians are to do everything in service to God.

This ruling fails to properly wrestle with the role of faith in the modern workplace.

In a plural society where everyone carries their values into work, the practice of seeking relational accommodation with others should be paramount.

Finally, we must look at the role of the Equality Commission who have unhelpfully framed this as a case of LGBT rights against religious belief. They welcomed the decision as a common sense ruling, suggesting the majority of the population who support Ashers lack common sense.

The court was highly critical of their failure to offer advice to the McArthur family, but the Chief Commissioner has said it would be obliged to do the same again and is not seeking a change in its mandate to allow it to mediate.

At the first hearing the Commission did not seek costs, in an apparent acknowledgement that this was a test case.

However, on appeal they are seeking costs from Ashers, estimated at £88,000.

This will make anyone think twice about challenging the Commission in the future and makes an appeal to the Supreme Court less likely.

A £36.50 cake is proving very costly, not just for the McArthur family, but for all of us as we see vital freedoms eroded.

Peter Lynas is director of the Northern Ireland Evangelical Alliance