Ashers Baking Company, a Christian-run bakery in Northern Ireland, has lost its appeal after being fined under “equality” legislation for politely declining an order to bake a cake with a slogan promoting “gay marriage”. Speaking after the verdict, owner Daniel McArthur said:
"We’re extremely disappointed with today’s ruling. If equality law means people can be punished for politely refusing to support other people’s causes, then equality law needs to change. This ruling undermines democratic freedom. It undermines religious freedom. It undermines free speech.”
"We had served Mr Lee before and would be happy to serve him again. The judges accepted that we did not know Mr Lee was gay and that was not the reason we declined the order. We have always said it was never about the customer, it was about the message. The court accepted that. But now we are being told we have to promote the message even though it's against our conscience. What we refused to do, was to be involved with promoting a political campaign to change marriage law…”
“We wouldn’t decorate a cake with a pornographic picture or with swear words. We wouldn’t decorate a cake with a spiteful message about gay people. Because to do so would be to endorse and promote what was said.” (Watch the rest of his very moving statement Here)
We have previously raised serious concerns about this case. Firstly we are concerned because there are strong reasons to suggest that Ashers was deliberately targeted because it advertised itself as a Christian-run business - just days after Northern Ireland’s Assembly had refused to redefine marriage law. In other words Ashers, not their accuser Mr Lee, were actually the victims.
Secondly, we have expressed serious concerns about the role of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland in this case. Indeed, the judges themselves criticised the NI Equality Commission saying that the publicly funded body should also have offered the McArthur family advice during the case, as the bakers believed their rights as people of faith within the commercial sphere were being undermined. In other words the judges implicitly accused the NI Equality Commission of unlawfully discriminating against Christians. Indeed, after the verdict, Ashers’ owner Daniel McArthur said:
"We never meant to cause anyone any offence, but at the same time, as Christians, we've certainly felt victimised by the Equality Commission of Northern Ireland."
In fact, the publicity created by the NI Equality Commission’s decision to fund a prosecution of Ashers was followed by a campaign of violence against the bakery and its Christian owners, including arson and death threats. This is part of a wider pattern of anti-Christian violence that government bodies such as the NI Equality Commission continue to ignore. Not only did the NI Equality Commission underwrite all court costs of their accuser, but also it is now seeking to force Ashers to pay those costs – amounting to £88,000 on top of their own legal costs – a move which the NI Equality Commission would be aware could easily force most similar-sized businesses into bankruptcy.
Most disturbingly, the verdict effectively gives carte blanche to any manner of lobby groups to force their views on others. Consequently, a number of more moderate gay rights activists have themselves expressed concern about the verdict, while the Daily Telegraph in its leader called for a change in the law. In an important article on the constitutional implications of the verdict it observed:
“In seeking to create a more open-minded society that accepts previously illicit predilections, we have merely replaced one set of intolerances with another. In particular, we have abandoned two of the fundamental principles that underpin our democracy and our liberties: freedom of expression and equality under the law. When I say “we”, I mean the governments that have brought forward ill-considered and illiberal legislation and the parliaments that have voted it through. MPs and peers, the supposed custodians of our liberties, have connived to diminish them.”
However, the head of the NI Equality Commission, Dr Michael Wardlow, insisted that “The answer is not to have the legislation changed and thereby remove the equality protection concerned.” In saying that, he has perhaps let the cat out of the bag. It appears that for the NI Equality Commission, the case was not about upholding the law, but rather about pursuing an ideological agenda to force Christians to promote beliefs about gay marriage with which they profoundly disagreed. In fact the Commission, despite being a public body, is far from neutral on this issue and had actively campaigned for the redefinition of marriage before the NI assembly rejected this. Both this and Dr Wardlow’s comments may provide further evidence to support the judges’ criticism that the NI Equality Commission may itself have unlawfully discriminated against Christians in its handling of this case.