Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 26 November 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Gay cake row: A simple apology might stop us looking like muppets

Gay Pride parade in Belfast in 2012 with marcher carrying a placard featuring Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie
Gay Pride parade in Belfast in 2012 with marcher carrying a placard featuring Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie
Alliance's Andrew Muir, NI's only openly gay mayor, slices the cake that caused offence

The case of Ashers and the gay cake sounds like a post-modern Agatha Christie novel. It is just the sort of thing that seems designed to polarise Northern Ireland opinion; everyone will have some- thing to say about it and most of us will go on general hunches.

Just to pin my own colours to the mast, my gut reaction was that the bakers should have fulfilled the order as requested. Refusing to ice a cake as required isn't a valid issue of principle.

On the other hand, I don't think this is a good case for the Equality Commission to go to court on and I don't believe that the McArthur family (who own Ashers) should be hanged, drawn and quartered for what was, at worst, an insensitive and judgmental attitude to a customer.

Opinions are so strong that myths are already growing up. Some people are saying that QueerSpace, the gay activist group, picked Ashers because it knew of the owners' fundamentalist Christian thinking and effectively set them up.

There is no evidence for that and the Christian Institute, which represents Ashers, doesn't pretend there is. Instead, it produced online photographs to show that QueerSpace managed to get the cake decorated in the way it wanted from a different baker.

Ashers is a specialist bakery with a chain of local shops. There is nothing on its website or in its advertising to suggest it has any agenda beyond supplying top-class products.

Gareth Lee of QueerSpace simply walked into its Royal Avenue store and ordered a cake decorated with a picture of two Sesame Street characters and the message 'Support gay marriage'.

About three days later the shop rang him to say that, as Christian, it could not supply the cake.

It has explained that it also refused to decorate cakes with obscenities, compounding the insult.

It was obvious that Mr Lee would be hurt, but it is not clear that it refused him because he was gay. If it had done that, it would have been an open-and-shut case and a good one to bring to court.

It is plainly illegal and wrong to discriminate against a customer on the basis of gender, race, religion, age, disability, or sexual orientation. As the barrister Brett Lockhart QC has written online: "The issue is whether the exercise of conscience has any role in the provision of goods, facilities and services which, according to the relevant regulations, must be provided to people irrespective of sexual orientation."

Ashers can make the case that it would have refused to ice this message on a cake – whoever had asked. What it can't argue is that it would have constituted an endorsement of gay marriage by the firm.

Newspapers don't endorse political advertising, although they reproduce it. It is simply fulfilling a contract – like icing a cake. This is an area where attitudes are changing and common courtesy is needed – not moral grandstanding.

We heard yesterday on the Stephen Nolan show how a relative of the McArthur family had wanted to ask the firm to bake a cake for her wedding to another woman.

She rang up, but in the end pulled back from asking her uncle to supply her wedding cake for fear of a humiliating knock-back. Unlike QueerSpace, she knew his attitudes.

Is it too much to expect that the company should reflect on whether its approach has been as businesslike, as respectful and as compassionate as it imagines?

An apology for hurt feelings would be in order, and it would be a better solution than a court case.

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