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Law is not only an ass, it has opened up door for the 'thought police'

By Nelson McCausland

Published 21/05/2015

Gay rights activist Gareth Lee
Gay rights activist Gareth Lee

Sometimes "the law is an ass". That was the observation of one of the characters in Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist, which was written in 1838. The determination this week in relation to Ashers bakery provides a good example of that observation.

In what has been described as a "landmark ruling", Ashers bakery and its owners Daniel and Amy McArthur have been found guilty of discriminating against "gay activist" Gareth Lee, because they declined to provide him with a cake with a slogan endorsing same-sex marriage.

The case has attracted international interest, just as similar cases in America and elsewhere have attracted international interest, and it raises important questions about freedom of conscience, religious liberty, equality, society and a hierarchy of rights.

What is happening to those important principles of freedom of conscience and religious liberty in Northern Ireland? What is the direction of travel of the law and are these principles being undermined and eroded?

Throughout what must have been a difficult time for them, the McArthur family have displayed a gracious Christian spirit.

They have witnessed to their faith in Christ and it is clear that the outworking of this faith is something that permeates every part of their lives, including their work and their business. As Reformed Presbyterians they believe in the kingship of Christ.

The family are now taking legal advice and considering their options. They could, of course, seek to appeal the County Court decision to a higher court - or even higher courts.

It has certainly motivated and activated Christians and churches across Northern Ireland and it has done so in a way that I haven't seen for some time.

However, support for the McArthur family is much wider than that, and a poll has indicated that 70% of the people of Northern Ireland believe that the case should not have been taken against them.

Gareth Lee was supported by the Equality Commission, which also funded the case, and the chief commissioner of the Equality Commission, Dr Michael Wardlow, has spoken about the issue on a number of occasions.

He was interviewed on Tuesday after the decision had been given and he was certainly less than impressive in justifying the intervention of the Equality Commission. Nevertheless, the Equality Commission must be very happy. It got what it wanted.

The judgment was lengthy and extensive and I am sure that legal experts will analyse it in considerable detail. However, it seems to be moving away from discrimination against a person - which is illegal - to include discrimination against a political belief, in this case "support for same-sex marriage". It didn't matter to Ashers who ordered the cake; it was the political message on the cake that was the issue.

Now, that may be a correct interpretation of the current law. And, if that is the case, then the current law is not only an ass, it is also a danger to democracy. It has opened the door for the "thought police" who want to determine what we must or must not think and say.

Consider a printer who had been a victim of IRA terrorism and was asked to print a poster for a republican commemoration march. If he refused to do so, would that constitute political discrimination and could he be dragged into court?

Consider a businessman who supports the State of Israel and who owns a PR company. If he is asked to undertake PR work for an organisation that seeks to undermine Israel, will he then be liable to be brought into court and accused of breaking the law? The County Court's interpretation of the current law has wide-ranging implications.

What is required is new legislation that provides a "reasonable accommodation" for those, like the McArthur family, who find themselves the victims of Commission-sponsored persecution.

Is that really too much to ask?

Nelson McCausland MLA is chair of the Assembly's culture, arts and leisure committee

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