Belfast Telegraph

Ashers 'gay cake' decision is a threat to our freedom of conscience

By Fionola Meredith

So, there we have it. The State demands that all the bakers in the land must be in favour of same-sex marriage.

Or at least they must be willing, if requested, to pipe out their support for it in pink icing on the top of a cake.

Butchers and candlestick-makers, regardless of their religious opinions, will also be forced to comply, or face prosecution, or give up their businesses entirely.

By the same legislative logic, a Muslim printer could be compelled to produce Hebdo-style cartoon images of the Prophet Mohammed. The lesbian owner of a clothing company could be forced to make T-shirts saying gay people will burn in Hell.

When will this warped totalitarian fairy tale end?

I'll tell you what this verdict is not about. It's not about tolerance, or liberalism, or freedom, or casting out the evils of discrimination.

It's about silencing and punishing those who refuse to sign up to a clearly-flawed 'equality' agenda. This is an agenda that cannot distinguish between actual discrimination - which is always wrong, and rightly punishable by law - and the vital exercise of freedom of conscience, the fundamental human right not to be forced to express approval for a particular political position.

If Ashers had refused to serve Gareth Lee, the LGBT activist who ordered the cake, because he was gay, then that would have been a clear act of discrimination, and the bakery's owners would have deserved to be prosecuted and fined. But that's not what happened. The message, not the customer, was the problem for Ashers.

What makes the whole thing even more of a sorry farce is that the State itself, in the form of the Stormont Assembly, itself rejects marriage equality. Bake a cake about that!

Look, I'm no Paul Givan. I oppose his rancid, opportunistic 'conscience clause', which to my mind is a discriminators' charter.

I am in favour of gay marriage. I regularly write and broadcast in support of the rights of LGBT people and against the antics of the religious fundamentalists who exert such a powerful and disproportionate influence over this country, and I will continue to do so.

But in this instance, my own intellectual and moral conscience compels me to stand alongside the Christian bakers.

Not because I'm some secret Caleban-fancier, or closet homophobe. I don't agree with Ashers' point of view about same-sex marriage. I don't even like cupcakes.

I'm standing here - although it's uncomfortable, and leaves me open to taunts, jibes and incredulity from supposedly liberal people I consider to be my friends - because I believe, above all else, in freedom of speech and freedom of conscience.

Quite frankly, without those vital principles, we're screwed. And that means all of us - straight, gay, religious, whatever.

Jonathan Rauch, the gay American activist and author, cautions strongly against the impulse to silence views we don't like. "The quest to stamp out discrimination or bigotry or racism wherever it appears is a quest to force all opinion into a single template," he warns.

Rather than acting as equality enforcers, Rauch thinks that gay activists should serve as guardians of an open, free-thinking society. "Playing that role, not seeking government protections or hauling our adversaries before star chambers, is the greater source of our dignity," he says.

"Our duty is to protect others' freedom to be wrong, the better to ensure society's odds of being right."

As I've said from the start of this whole sorry episode, the answer to old-fashioned religious intolerance is not more intolerance.

Time to live and let live.

Read more:

Tesco reviewing Ashers 'gay cake' judgement 

Everyone a loser in 'gay cake' row

Ashers verdict may be right in law, but it leaves deep unease 

Ashers 'gay cake' decision is a threat to our freedom of conscience 

'Gay cake': It's a ruling to rejoice in, but gays are still very afraid

Gay cake case: Branded law breakers by a court, but beaming McArthurs insist they have no regrets 

Gay cake verdict shows laws needed to allow for differing views, says DUP's Sammy Wilson 

Ashers 'gay cake' case made news all around the world 

By elevating icing on a cake to a major issue, gay rights activists won battle but lost the war  

Gay cake case: Churches united in criticism of 'dangerous' Ashers bakery decision

Ashers bakery couple: Guilty by law, but we're innocent in God's eyes 

Verdict was particularly disappointing for Christians, whose prayers weren't answered  

Ashers' customers divided on outcome of case  

Ashers Bakery lose 'gay cake' case: 'We will not be closing down, we have not done anything wrong' says boss

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