If Ashers Bakery lose 'gay cake' battle the Equality Commission faces an avalanche of cases, QC predicts
The Belfast bakery refused to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan featuring Bert and Ernie
One of the UK's leading human rights lawyers has warned an equality watchdog they face an avalanche of litigation if they succeed in a controversial court case against a Christian-owned bakery.
Aidan O'Neill QC has outlined the dramatic consequences which could follow if Ashers Bakery Company loses a case brought by the Equality Commission because it refused to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan.
Mr O'Neill's legal opinion, obtained by the Belfast Telegraph, argues that the Equality Commission's case is flawed because it concentrates on equality legislation but ignores human rights laws. In particular, there is no absolute right not to be offended.
The barrister's paper, commissioned by the Christian Institute which is financially supporting Ashers, will be seen as a blow to the Equality Commission just a week before the case is due in court.
The affair hit the headlines last year when Ashers Baking Company declined an order from a gay rights activist asking for cake featuring the Sesame Street puppets, Bert and Ernie. The customer also wanted the cake to feature the logo of a Belfast-based campaign group called "Queerspace". Ashers said it had declined the request because it was "at odds" with its Christian beliefs.
The Equality Commission has launched a civil action against the company claiming that its actions violate equality laws in Northern Ireland.
Renowned barrister Aidan O'Neill argues that the Equality Commission case could impact on huge numbers of businesses who decided to turn away custom based on their firmly-held beliefs.
This would include a Muslim printer being forced to print cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed or an atheist web designer having to produce a website presenting as scientific fact the belief that God made the world in six days.
Mr O'Neill argues that the Equality Commission case ignores the basic human right not to be forced or required to express support for a particular opinion or political position.
He said: "Their (Ashers) refusal to endorse this opinion (support for same-sex marriage) has resulted in the State, in the form of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, funding court action which seeks to stigmatise as unlawful and render unactionable the defendants' religious beliefs and political opinions."
He compares the Equality Commission case with Elizabeth I's position on religious plurality in the 16th century, based on cynicism backed by power: "I cannot control how you think, but I can control what you do."
Colin Hart, director of the Christian Institute, said Ashers can only lose the case if discrimination law is wrongly applied and their free speech rights under article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights are set aside.
He said: "This is a truly alarming case with far-reaching implications for freedom of speech. It's wrong for the law to force people to say things they don't believe. Ashers were asked to create a cake that promotes gay marriage. But people should be free to disagree."
Ashers has the backing of the Christian Institute's Legal Defence Fund which supports Christians facing difficulties for holding to their religious beliefs in an increasingly secular society. An appeal for donations to cover costs has drawn a significant response.
Six scenarios ‘where there would be no defence’
In his legal opinion, Aidan O’Neill presents six scenarios where companies would have no legal defence if the Equality Commission case were to succeed.
He said: “If the approach of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland were correctly based in law (which I do not consider it to be) then on the basis that the law does not protect the fundamental right — within the commercial context of supplying services — to hold opinions nor guarantee any negative freedom of expression, there would be no defence to similar actions being taken against individuals or companies supplying services in any of the following scenarios which have been presented to me:
• A Muslim printer refusing a contract requiring the printing of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed;
• An atheist web designer refusing to design a website presenting as scientific fact the claim that God made the world in six days;
• A Christian film company refusing to produce a “feminist/female-gaze” erotic film;
• A Christian baker refusing to take an order to make a cake celebrating Satanism;
• A T-shirt company owned by lesbians declining to print T-shirts with a message describing gay marriage as an “abomination”;
• A printing company run by Roman Catholics declining an order to produce adverts calling for abortion on demand to be legalised.