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Intolerance of the Ashers case won't further tolerance

By Fionola Meredith

Published 20/03/2015

Ashers Bakery in Mallusk, County Antrim
Ashers Bakery in Mallusk, County Antrim

As so often happens in Northern Ireland, sometimes it takes an informed outsider to show us what we're too blind to see ourselves.

Top human rights lawyer Aidan O'Neill QC has spelled out the glaring inadequacies in the Equality Commission's case against Ashers, the Christian-owned bakery which refused to make a cake with the words "support gay marriage" on it.

What the commission is ignoring, says O'Neill, is the fundamental human right not to be forced to express support for a particular opinion or political position. What's more, O'Neill adds, presumably with regard to the unfortunate customer in this case, there is no absolute right not to be offended.

Exactly correct, on both counts. This is what I've been saying since this absurd cake business first arose in May last year.

No company should be under any obligation to facilitate the dissemination of beliefs that are antithetical to the ethos of that business. Not only does that radically infringe their rights to freedom of conscience, it does nothing to advance the cause of equality.

How would the principles of fair treatment, tolerance and respect for all be furthered if Ashers was compelled to squirt out these controversial words? The answer, of course, is not one iota. All that would be achieved is a form of state-enforced hypocrisy that stinks to high heaven.

And is it just me, or is there something uniquely Northern Irish about the way that the state, in the form of the Equality Commission, is seeking to punish Ashers for its refusal to endorse same-sex marriage, while at the very same time refusing to endorse same-sex marriage itself?

In spite of several attempts to change the law, Stormont still says no. Our capacity to tie ourselves up in such ridiculous and unnecessary knots, from which we need others to extract us, never ceases to amaze me.

I'm aware that my stance on this issue is inexplicable to some of my "liberal" friends and acquaintances. They cannot understand why I do not join them in their morally-superior huddle of outrage against the nasty bigots.

Recently, a well-known local journalist told me that my views "put me to the right of the DUP", which would be a real first for me - if only it were true.

This is not about Right or Left, secular or religious, gay or straight. It's about remaining faithful to the the vital principles of freedom of conscience and freedom of speech which underpin our democracy. We dilute them at our peril.

The practising of selective tolerance, where some views are acceptable and others are not, especially if policed and enforced by state agencies, has more than a whiff of the Stasi about it.

Look, I'm sure it was pretty rotten for Gareth Lee, the LGBT activist who requested the cake, to find his order refused and his money returned. I wish Ashers had felt able to give him what he wanted and their refusal to do so means they won't be getting my business anytime soon. I prefer my cupcakes value-free.

But there are more important things at stake here than somebody's hurt feelings. Besides, it's worth emphasising, yet again, that Ashers' action was not a direct rejection of Lee on the grounds of his perceived sexuality, which would certainly be wrong and a prosecutable offence, but a refusal to endorse a specific slogan.

These are two separate scenarios which must be kept distinct. You don't need to be an opportunistic piety-peddler like Paul Givan to know this to be true.

I admit, I am not comfortable with the company I am keeping when standing alongside Ashers and its supporters in the DUP and the Christian Institute, which commissioned O'Neill's paper. Let's just say, it's not my natural home.

I believe - and have argued passionately on many occasions - that politically-motivated religious fundamentalism is a scourge on this society. I abhor it in all its forms: the appalling barbarism of our anti-abortion legislation, the stupid prejudice of the ban on gay blood, the furtive attempts to represent bizarre beliefs like Young Earth Creationism as scientific fact in schools and museums.

I haven't changed my mind about any of that and I'll continue to speak out about it. But the answer to traditional religious intolerance is not more intolerance.

You don't get everyone singing sweetly from the same hymn book - or whatever the secular equivalent may be - by using state power to dictate what songs they must sing.

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