Human rights campaigner PETER TATCHELL explains why he supports Christian bakers

IN MAY 2014 Gareth Lee enters Ashers Bakery in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He wants a cake depicting Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie below the motto “Support Gay Marriage” for an event to mark International Day Against Homophobia. Ashers, run by a fundamentalist Christian family, the McArthurs, initially accept the order, but contact Lee a few days later to say they cannot fulfil it because it goes against their religious beliefs.

Backed by the Equality Commission, Lee sues the bakery. The NI Equality Commission then announces that it is beginning legal proceedings against the business. In March 2015 a 17-hour, three-day courtroom battle commences. Lee tells the court that he was left to feel like a “lesser person” when the firm refused his order.

The McArthurs, who own Ashers, tell the court they could not “stand before God” and produce a cake supporting gay marriage. Then in May 2015 District Judge Isobel Brownlie delivers her judgment, finding that Ashers discriminated against customer Lee on grounds of sexual orientation and political beliefs. The firm is ordered to pay him £500 in damages.

The case of clashing religious and equality rights attracts interest from across the world, and also ignites a political row, and the Democratic Unionist Party attempts to introduce a conscience clause Bill which would give business owners the right to refuse service if it impinges on their sincerely held religious views.

In October 2015 the McArthur family announce their intention to appeal against the judgment, and their challenge to the ruling begins in February 2016, but is adjourned until May 9.

At the start of the appeal, human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell entered the fray, siding with the Christian Institute, which is supporting the McArthur family.

Under the headline “I’ve changed my mind on gay cake row. Here’s why” he wrote: “Like most gay and equality campaigners, I initially condemned the Christian-run Ashers Bakery in Belfast over its refusal to produce a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan for a gay customer, Gareth Lee.

“I supported his legal claim against Ashers and the subsequent verdict. My reasons for supporting Gareth’s claim were:

“1. Ashers had falsely advertised their services, saying they were willing decorate their cakes with any message that a customer wanted. They did not say there were any limits on the designs or wording.

“2. I feared that Ashers actions could open the flood gates to allow sectarian loyalist-republican discrimination and discrimination against women, LGBTs and minorities – and their points of view.

“Now, two days before the Asher’s case is being considered by the Appeal Court, I have changed my mind. Much as I wish to defend the gay community, I also want to defend freedom of conscience, expression and religion.

“While Christian bed and breakfast owners and civil partnership registrars were clearly wrong to deny service to gay people, this case is different. It is about the refusal to facilitate an idea – namely, support for same-sex marriage.

“I will continue to oppose the proposed ‘conscience clause’ in Northern Ireland. It is intended to allow discrimination against LGBT people. I do not accept that people of faith should be permitted by law to deny service to LGBTs – or anyone else. Discrimination against people is never acceptable.”

Tatchell added that the bakery’s refusal to create the cake “struck many of us as discrimination based on religious-inspired homophobic prejudice. Ashers believe that the relationships of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people are wrong and should not be eligible for the status of marriage. They translated these beliefs into action and declined to make the cake. Ashers would have decorated a cake with a message celebrating traditional heterosexual marriage and promoting a Christian organisation. Surely this was an example of clear-cut anti-gay discrimination? . . . I profoundly disagree with Ashers’ opposition to same-sex love and marriage, and support protests against them. They claim to be Christians and followers of Jesus. Yet he never once condemned homosexuality. Moreover, discrimination is not a Christian value. Ashers’ religious justifications are, to my mind, theologically unsound.

“Nevertheless, on reflection, the court was wrong to penalise Ashers and I was wrong to endorse its decision. For sure, the lawsuit against the bakery was well intended. It sought to challenge homophobia. But it was a step too far. It pains me to say this, as a long-time supporter of the struggle for LGBT equality in Northern Ireland, where same-sex marriage and gay blood donors remain banned.

“The equality laws are intended to protect people against discrimination. A business providing a public service has a legal duty to do so without discrimination based on race, gender, faith, sexuality and so on.

“However, the court erred by ruling that Gareth was discriminated against because of his sexual orientation and political opinions.

“His cake request was not refused because he was gay but because of the message he wanted on the cake. There is no evidence that his sexuality was the reason Ashers declined his order.

“Despite this, Judge Isobel Brownlie said refusing the pro-gay marriage slogan was unlawful indirect sexual orientation discrimination because same-sex marriage is a union between persons of the same-sex and therefore refusing to provide a service in support of same-sex marriage was de facto sexual orientation discrimination.

“I disagree. Refusing to facilitate a message in support of same-sex marriage is not sexuality discrimination. It is discrimination against an idea, not against a person.

“On the question of political discrimination, the judge said Ashers had denied Gareth service based on his request for a message supporting same-sex marriage. She noted: ‘If the plaintiff had ordered a cake with the words “support marriage” or “support heterosexual marriage” I have no doubt that such a cake would have been provided.’ Brownlie therefore concluded that by refusing to provide a cake with a pro-gay marriage wording Ashers had treated him less favourably, contrary to the law.

“This may be a case of differential treatment. However, it was not discrimination against views held or expressed by Gareth but against words he wanted on a cake. Moreover, the law against political discrimination was meant to protect people with differing political views, not to force others to further political views to which they conscientiously object.

“The finding of political discrimination against Gareth sets a worrying precedent. Northern Ireland’s laws against discrimination on the grounds of political opinion were framed in the context of decades of conflict. They were designed to heal the sectarian divide by preventing the denial of jobs, housing and services to people because of their politics. There was never an intention that this law should compel people to promote political ideas, such as same-sex marriage, with which they disagreed – let alone on a cake.

“The judge concluded that service providers are required by law to facilitate any ‘lawful’ message, even if they have a conscientious objection to it.

“This begs the question: Should a Muslim printer be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed or a Jewish one the words of a Holocaust denier? Will gay bakers have to accept orders for cakes with homophobic slurs? If the current Ashers verdict stands it could, for example, encourage far right extremists to demand that bakeries and other service providers facilitate the promotion of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim opinions.

“It would leave businesses unable to refuse to decorate cakes, print posters and emblazon mugs with bigoted messages.

“In my view, it is an infringement of freedom to require private businesses to aid the promotion of ideas to which they conscientiously object. Discrimination against people should be unlawful but not discrimination against ideas and opinions.”