Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

'Cakegate' crazy, but it raises key free speech issue

Bert and Ernie

What could be more sweet and wholesome? A Victoria sandwich filled with jam, with a cute picture of Bert and Ernie, those loveable fools from Sesame Street, perched on top. Oh yes, and the slogan 'Support Gay Marriage' written in pink icing round the edge of the cake.

Just the thing to go with your afternoon tea: gay rights and gateau, all rolled into one. That'll make you feel nice and happy inside.

It's a charming idea, but that wasn't how Ashers Baking Company, which received the request for the Bert and Ernie cake, saw the situation. They refused to make it, because they're a Christian company and the order didn't sit comfortably with their beliefs about marriage.

Ashers gave the customer his money back and thought nothing more of it. That was until they received a letter, some weeks later, from the Equality Commission, threatening the possibility of legal action on the grounds that the company had discriminated against the customer as a result of his sexual orientation.

This was when the buttercream well and truly hit the fan – and you know how sticky that stuff is. Soon the story was everywhere. Only in Northern Ireland would we manage to have a row over the perceived sexuality of a cake.

Gay rights activists were beside themselves with outrage that their cake had been so hurtfully rejected, while Christian conservatives, manfully supported by the DUP – ever ready to keep all Ulster gateaux pure and holy, unsullied by the taint of Sodom – demanded their right to freedom of conscience in the decoration of cakes as in all other matters

But, once I'd finished laughing at the absurdity of the whole thing, I did start to think that it raised some rather important matters.

For a start, has the Equality Commission nothing better to do than chase round making sure that icing on cakes is in line with Section 75 legislation? Aren't there more pressing equality issues with which they could be keeping themselves busy?

And isn't there a certain irony in the fact that the Equality Commission is funded by Stormont which, on several occasions now, has declared itself opposed to gay marriage?

So the Equality Commission draws on the full force of anti-discrimination law to ensure that, if demanded, cakes supporting marriage equality must be made, while drawing its own cash from an institution which rejects it. And I'm far from convinced that this was in fact a matter of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. It's not the same as the English couple who turned away a gay couple from their B&B.

The bakery didn't refuse to serve the customer because he was gay, as the B&B owners did, which would, indeed, be discriminatory and clearly wrong.

What they did do was refuse to write a slogan supporting gay marriage on one of their products. Which, oddly enough, turns it into a question of freedom of expression.

Should businesses such as Ashers be forcibly compelled to write messages that they fundamentally disagree with on their products? And, if they are, does that advance true equality one iota?

If that is indeed the case, bakeries look set to become the new frontline of culture wars. Forget Ardoyne, what I want to know is if a bakery on the Shankill Road is going to be forced to make a cake saying 'All Hail Gerry Adams', and threatened with legal action if they don't come up with the goods.

Will the Falls Road bakery have to make a cake in the shape of an Eleventh night bonfire, complete with tiny fondant tricolours on top?

I support gay marriage myself and, like every reasonable person, abhor discrimination against people on the grounds of race or sexuality or disability or any other marker of difference.

But I think we need to be careful that, in our zeal to protect those who have historically encountered oppression and continue to endure it today, we don't seek to impose approved cultural values on certain target groups – in this case conservative Christians – in the name of social progress.

I admit to feeling a little sickish even saying this; no, I haven't been over-indulging in gay cake, I just feel weird standing up for the holy rollers. It doesn't come naturally.

But people have to be allowed to express their own views and beliefs – or not be officially coerced into renouncing them – if freedom is to mean anything at all.

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