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Ashers gay cake ruling was black day for personal freedom

Ashers case wasn't about faith or sexuality; it was about right to choose religious and political beliefs, writes Fionola Meredith

Published 25/10/2016

Daniel McArthur and wife Amy outside court yesterday
Daniel McArthur and wife Amy outside court yesterday

Let's nail the biggest myth right now. The Ashers case was never a simplistic battle between conservative Christians and the LGBT community and their respective supporters.

Sadly, this ill-conceived, vexatious and divisive action has, indeed, led to a polarisation of viewpoints, with loud claims of martyrdom and oppression on both sides - some more justified than others. It has left, in its wake, a noxious stink of hatred, hurt and mutual recrimination.

The cause of true equality has not been advanced one iota by compelling businesses to disseminate political beliefs which are antithetical to their ethos.

State-enforced hypocrisy, courtesy of the Equality Commission and the judiciary, is not equivalent to genuine enlightenment, respect and tolerance. We are exactly where we were, before Gareth Lee placed that fateful order - except that now there's a lot more rancour in the air. This is certainly not a victory for peace, love and understanding.

Yet, at its core, the "gay cake" case is not about faith, or sexuality. No, this is fundamentally a case about personal freedom.

The liberty to choose your own political and religious beliefs and to express them in your own way. The right to say no to political ideals you do not share.

These are the freedoms that have now been dangerously undermined by the appeal court's decision to uphold the verdict against Ashers.

In our constitutionally tribal society, the default mode in such situations is for everyone to line up with their home teams.

So, of course, the McArthurs had the DUP and the Christian Institute batting for them, while Gareth Lee and the Equality Commission had every right-thinking liberal east of the Bann (and a fair smattering westwards, as well).

It was a simple case of bigoted Christians versus the beleaguered LGBT community, wasn't it? Business as usual.

Well, so I thought at first. I often criticise the pernicious effect that religious fundamentalism has on the politics of Northern Ireland and I speak frequently in support of gay rights, including marriage equality. So, it seemed clear where I should take my stand.

But then I realised that there were deeper questions at stake here. Rights and freedoms, which underpin our entire democracy and which are vital to us all, regardless of our religion, or sexual orientation.

Sadly, such is the addiction to sectarian thinking in Northern Ireland (and I'm not just talking Orange and Green), few people recognised that these foundational rights were under threat.

As usual, it was easier to insult and sneer and attack and demean anyone who didn't line up obediently and conform to the number one rule of the tribe: "If you're not with us, you're against us."

One person who did recognise the existential threat - and it is to his great credit that he announced it publicly - was the veteran gay rights activist Peter Tatchell. He had originally supported the action against Ashers, but he ended up changing his mind.

It must have been deeply uncomfortable for Tatchell to speak out in favour of the McArthurs' right to conscientiously object to the slogan they were asked to produce, given their opposition to gay marriage. But speak out he did. And characteristically strongly.

"This finding of political discrimination against (Gareth) Lee sets a worrying precedent," he wrote in the Guardian newspaper, after the original verdict.

"Northern Ireland's laws against discrimination on the grounds of political opinion were framed in the context of decades of conflict.

"They were designed to heal the sectarian divide by preventing the denial of jobs, housing and services to people because of their politics.

"There was never an intention that this law should compel people to promote political ideas with which they disagreed ... In my view, it is an infringement of freedom to require businesses to aid the promotion of ideas to which they conscientiously object. Discrimination against people should be unlawful, but not against ideas."

Now the appeal has upheld the initial ruling that there had been direct discrimination, not just against Lee, but seemingly against the entire gay community in Northern Ireland. The three judges said: "The reason the order was cancelled was that the appellants (Ashers) would not provide a cake with a message supporting a right to marry for those of a particular sexual orientation. This was a case of association with the gay and bisexual community and the protected personal characteristic was the sexual orientation of that community. Accordingly this was direct discrimination."

Yet Peter Tatchell remains opposed. He can see the dire consequences of the decision - even if the judges cannot.

"This verdict is a defeat for freedom of expression," he said. "As well as meaning that Ashers can be legally forced to aid the promotion of same-sex marriage, it also implies that gay bakers could be forced by law to decorate cakes with homophobic slogans.

"It seems that businesses cannot now lawfully refuse a customer's request to propagate a message, even if it is a sexist, xenophobic, or anti-gay message and even if the business has a conscientious objection to it. Although I strongly disagree with Ashers' opposition to marriage equality, in a free society neither they nor anyone else should be compelled to facilitate a political idea that they oppose."

If Gareth Lee had, indeed, been refused service because he was gay, I wouldn't be sitting here writing. I would be protesting outside Ashers right now.

There is never, ever any place for discrimination, religiously motivated, or otherwise, which is why I utterly reject the proposed "Conscience Clause". To my mind, it is a discriminator's charter.

If Lee was sent packing by Ashers because he was gay, that would be indefensible. But that is not what happened. The message, not the customer, was the problem for Ashers.

And neither they, nor any other private business, should be forced by the state to espouse political ideas they reject.

For us to learn the real lessons of the Ashers case, we need to ditch the tribal warpaint and reconnect with the fundamental freedoms we all share.

None of us - gay or straight, religious or not - can afford to take them for granted.

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