Belfast Telegraph

Protecting freedom of conscience

Editor's Viewpoint

Much public interest will be focused this week on an important ruling in the Belfast County Court, which will hear a case between the Equality Commission and the Ashers Baking Company.

The details are complex, but the issue at heart is whether or not the Ashers was within its rights not to put a message supporting same-sex marriage on a cake which it agreed to supply to a customer, even though such a message is fundamentally opposed to its Christian beliefs.

People are querying the decision by the Equality Commission to go to law over this, which is seen by many as the rights of conscience and not as an "equality" issue.

A poll commissioned by the Christian Institute has revealed that 71% of those questioned believe that the Equality Commission is wrong in taking Ashers to court - with this opinion shared by a majority of even the youngest demographic. Furthermore, the poll revealed that 77% believe that the Equality Commission should not be spending public money in taking this action.

Significantly, 90% believe that equality laws should be used to protect people from discrimination but not to force them to promote a view to which they are strongly opposed.

The poll also asked questions about other issues which might arise. For example, almost three-quarters said they believed that a Catholic printing company should not be forced through legal action to produce advertisements calling for the legalisation of abortion.

It is important to stress that this is not a uniquely "Christian" issue. Almost 80% of people in the poll believe that a Muslim printer should not be taken to court for refusing to print cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

It is also important to underline that the Ashers Bakery case is not an issue between liberals and conservatives. Every liberal-minded person should support the principle that people should not be forced by law into promoting a message with which they fundamentally disagree.

The freedom of conscience must be protected in a democratic society, and people on all sides will be watching keenly the outcome of this fundamentally important case, which goes to the very heart of our freedom of conscience.

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