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

By Fionola Meredith

Published 20/05/2015

Bakery owners Daniel McArthur and his wife Amy arrive at court for the verdict. Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 19th May 2015 Picture by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye
Bakery owners Daniel McArthur and his wife Amy arrive at court for the verdict. Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 19th May 2015 Picture by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye
Pacemaker Press 19/5/2015 Daniel McArthur (director of Ashers Bakery) and with wife Amy at Laganside court in Belfast on Tuesday. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Pacemaker Press 19/5/2015 Gay rights activist Gareth Lee outside Laganside Court. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Pacemaker Press 19/5/2015 Gay rights activist Gareth Lee outside Laganside Court. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Pacemaker Press 19/5/2015 Gay rights activist Gareth Lee outside Laganside Court. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Pacemaker Press 19/5/2015 Daniel McArthur (director of Ashers Bakery) and with wife Amy at Laganside court in Belfast on Tuesday. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Pacemaker Press 19/5/2015 Gay rights activist Gareth Lee gets a hug from a friend outside Laganside Court. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Pacemaker Press 19/5/2015 Gay rights activist Gareth Lee gets a hug from a friend outside Laganside Court. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Pacemaker Press 19/5/2015 Daniel McArthur (director of Ashers Bakery) and with wife Amy at Laganside court in Belfast on Tuesday. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Pacemaker Press 19/5/2015 Daniel McArthur (director of Ashers Bakery) and with wife Amy at Laganside court in Belfast on Tuesday Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Pacemaker Press 19/5/2015 Daniel McArthur (director of Ashers Bakery) at Laganside court in Belfast on Tuesday. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Pacemaker Press 19/5/2015 Daniel McArthur (director of Ashers Bakery) and with wife Amy at Laganside court in Belfast on Tuesday. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Pacemaker Press 19/5/2015 Daniel McArthur (director of Ashers Bakery) and with wife Amy at Laganside court in Belfast on Tuesday. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Pacemaker Press 19/5/2015 Daniel McArthur (director of Ashers Bakery) and with wife Amy at Laganside court in Belfast on Tuesday Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Dr Michael Wardlow(left() from the Equality Commission and Gareth Lee(centre) pictured outside the court after the verdict. Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 19th May 2015 Picture by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye
The DUP's Paul Givan(second from right) and Edwin Poots(second from left) pictured outside the court after the verdict. Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 19th May 2015 Picture by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye
Bakery owners Daniel McArthur and his wife Amy arrive at court for the verdict. Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 19th May 2015 Picture by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye
Bakery owners Daniel McArthur and his wife Amy arrive at court for the verdict. Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 19th May 2015 Picture by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye
Bakery owners Daniel McArthur and his wife Amy arrive at court for the verdict. Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 19th May 2015 Picture by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye
Bakery owners Daniel McArthur and his wife Amy arrive at court for the verdict. Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 19th May 2015 Picture by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye
Bakery owners Daniel McArthur and his wife Amy pictured outside the court after the verdict. Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 19th May 2015 Picture by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye
Bakery owners Daniel McArthur and his wife Amy pictured outside the court after the verdict. Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 19th May 2015 Picture by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye
Gareth Lee who had tried to order the cake. Gareth Lee(centre) pictured outside the court after the verdict. Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 19th May 2015 Picture by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye
Gareth Lee who had tried to order the cake. Gareth Lee(right) pictured outside the court after the verdict. Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 19th May 2015 Picture by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye
Bakery owners Daniel McArthur and his wife Amy pictured outside the court after the verdict. Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 19th May 2015 Picture by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye
Gareth Lee who had trued to order the cake. Bakery owners Daniel McArthur and his wife Amy pictured outside the court after the verdict. Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 19th May 2015 Picture by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye
Gareth Lee(centre) pictured outside the court after the verdict. Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 19th May 2015 Picture by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye
Gareth Lee receives a hug outside the court after the verdict. Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 19th May 2015 Picture by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye
Bakery owners Daniel McArthur and his wife Amy pictured outside the court after the verdict. Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 19th May 2015 Picture by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye
Ashers found guilty of discrimination in cake case. A judge has found a Christian bakery which refused to make a cake bearing a pro-gay marriage slogan guilty of discrimination. Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 19th May 2015 Picture by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye
Daniel McArthur (General manager at Ashers Bakery) arrives at Laganside Court in Belfast with his familly Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Daniel and Amy McArthur arrive at Laganside Court yesterday morning
Ashers' Daniel McArthur with his wife Amy and his parents Colin and Karen behind leave Laganside Court after the case finished
Daniel McArthur (General manager at Ashers Bakery) arrives at Laganside Court in Belfast with his family. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Daniel McArthur, general manager of Asher's Bakery gives a statement to the media before entering court
Ashers Baking Co on Belfast’s Royal Avenue, where Gareth Lee placed the order for the cake at the centre of the court action
Ashers bakery boss Daniel McArthur at Belfast Court. Pic Mark Simpson BBC
More than 2,000 people pack the Waterfront Hall to show support for Ashers bakery
Gareth Lee, whose lawyer put his side of the case to the court yesterday
Daniel and Amy McArthur arriving at Belfast County Court to fight a challenge by Northern Ireland's Equality Commission following their refusal to make a cake bearing a pro-gay marriage slogan. David Young/PA Wire
The cake at the centre of the Ashers row
Daniel McArthur (General manager at Ashers Bakery) arrives at Laganside Court in Belfast with his wife Amy on thursday. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Pacemaker Press 26/3/2015 Daniel McArthur (General manager at Ashers Bakery) arrives at Laganside Court in Belfast with his wife Amy on thursday, Ashers face a discrimination case supported by the Equality Commission, after a dispute began when the Christian-run bakery refused a request to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Daniel McArthur (General manager at Ashers Bakery) arrives at Laganside Court in Belfast. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Christian Institute support rally for Ashers bakery held at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast. Photograph: Stephen Hamilton/Presseye
Christian Institute support rally for Ashers bakery held at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast. Photograph: Stephen Hamilton/Presseye
Daniel McArthur (General manager at Ashers Bakery) arrives at Laganside Court in Belfast. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Daniel and Amy McArthur with their baby daughter Elia
Christian Institute support rally for Ashers bakery held at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast. In attendance is the DUP's Sammy Wilson. Photograph:Stephen Hamilton/Presseye
The Ashers Baking Co outlet in Belfast’s Royal Avenue
Mayor Andrew Muir cutting a Sesame Street Bert and Ernie 'Support Gay Marriage' cake

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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