Belfast Telegraph

Cake row is just a recipe for another legal disaster

By Alf McCreary

It is human nature for people to want to eat their cake with a message of their choosing on the top. However, life is not quite as simple as that. The people who bake and sell the cake are entitled to their rights also. If they agree to sell a cake to a customer, I believe that they also should have a say regarding the message which they are asked to put on that cake.

These issues lie at the heart of the legal case involving the Equality Commission and the proprietors of Ashers Bakery, which agreed to sell a cake to a customer but not to put on a message supporting same-sex marriage, which is against their conscience.

What puzzles me is how the situation has reached this stage and why the powerful Equality Commission, funded by the taxpayer, has chosen to use its might to contest this case legally. One could suggest that a little more human understanding might have produced a happier outcome, without resorting to law.

Earlier this week, for example, I was shopping in a store for a St Patrick's Day card to mark an important family anniversary.

To my surprise I was told: "They haven't sent us across St Patrick's Day cards this year." Was this because of a supply problem, or because an English-based company had decided no longer to supply St Patrick's Day cards to Northern Ireland because these carried a strong "Christian connection" with our patron saint?

I chose not to make a fuss and instead I drove to the excellent little corner-shop where I buy my daily papers, and where I also bought a suitable St Patrick's Day card. Problem solved. In most of these situations we can make a sensible choice, and move on.

Some people argue that the row over the Ashers cake could have been solved if the proprietors had decided to include a "pro-gay" message on the top, merely for the sake of peace.

However there are times in personal, corporate and religious life where people decide to draw a line in the sand, and they will not cross it. If people are strong enough to stand by their principles they may offend others, and this may lead to litigation.

The law is the law, and the outcome is never easy to predict. So, we must await a ruling on the Ashers case. However, it is sad that so much of our life in Northern Ireland is determined by the law and judicial reviews. Whatever happened to common sense?

Meantime, this dispute over a cake provides considerable food for thought, to believers and non-believers as well. The main Churches are solidly behind Ashers, while those on the other side will hardly change their views that the refusal to comply with the customers' wishes was unwarranted discrimination.

However, this is not a question of "equality", as the Equality Commission misguidedly claims, but a matter of "conscience".

I believe that anyone who agrees to provide a service to a customer, like selling them a cake, has a full right to object to putting a message on that cake which deeply offends his or her conscience.

It may require the wisdom of Solomon to decide this one, but I and many thousands of other people believe that Ashers are right to stand up for their rights of conscience in a free and democratic society, and I wish them well.

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