Next Tuesday and Wednesday (1-2 May 2018) the Supreme Court will hear the appeal from Ashers Baking Company in Northern Ireland. A previous appeal, 24 October 2016, upheld the original court ruling that Ashers bakery had directly discriminated on the grounds of sexual orientation, and on the grounds of religious and political belief.
On 29 April 2014, an attempt to redefine marriage (as not exclusively between a man and a woman) was blocked in the Northern Ireland Assembly. LGBT activists openly blamed Christians for this. A few days later an LGBT activist walked into Ashers bakery, whose website makes clear it is a Christian-owned business, and tried to place an order for a cake with the logo of LGBT lobby group Queer Space and the words ”Support Gay Marriage”. When the order was politely declined, he sued the Christian owners for discrimination. This followed the pattern of a series of similar, well publicised, attempts in the American states of Colorado and Oregon the previous year in which LGBT activists attempted to force Christian cake-makers to promote LGBT ideological beliefs.
As we have previously observed, there are several facts that are disturbing about this case. The first is that there is a widespread assumption within an increasingly secular and liberal establishment that when there is any conflict between the human right to freedom of religion or belief and “gay rights”, then the latter should win. As an editorial in The Guardian newspaper expressed it:
“Although it is invidious to have to choose between religious and sexual identity, the law should, when in doubt, protect sexual minorities over religious ones.”
Secondly, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI) have from the outset supported the LGBT activist, including paying all his legal costs, even though it is far from clear that he is the victim in this case. Meanwhile, the owners of Ashers bakery were left to pay their own very substantial legal costs, currently amounting to £200,000 and which will increase significantly as the case goes to the Supreme Court. This is something which could have literally bankrupted their business had the Christian community not stepped in to help them. The ECNI, in fact, have legal responsibility for protecting BOTH freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination in Northern Ireland. In a previous hearing the Lord Chief Justice for Northern Ireland openly criticised the ECNI for their lack of an even-handed approach.
A third disturbing fact is that, following the publicity which surrounded the ECNI taking up the case against them, Ashers began to experience a spate of intimidation and violence; this included threats to burn down the bakery with the owners inside and actual damage to the property. Whilst this does not compare with the level of intimidation and violence recently directed against Christians in Australia by activists, it is a disturbing trend.