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Ashers ruling: Outcome must not discourage people's faith

By Peter Lynas

Published 25/10/2016

Peter Tatchell
Peter Tatchell

The decision to dismiss the appeal in the Ashers case has placed a serious financial burden on the firm and their supporters, but more importantly has put a price on freedom.

This was a disappointing day for the family and for freedom of conscience and religion.

Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell described the ruling as a "defeat for freedom of expression" which "sets a dangerous and authoritarian precedent".

Peter Tatchell and I disagree about same-sex marriage, but we agree that in a democratic society people should be able to discriminate against an idea they disagree with.

Had Ashers failed to serve Mr Lee one of their excellent eclairs because he was gay, then a £500 fine would have been too lenient for such obvious discrimination.

But it was the slogan on the cake that caused the company concern, and that difference is important.

Ashers are clear that they would not have made a cake with that slogan for anyone - gay or straight.

As they would have treated everyone the same, most people take the view that they have not discriminated against anyone.

That is why the majority of people in Northern Ireland support the bakers and will struggle to understand this ruling.

By pushing the boundaries of the law in a way in which few understand and fewer still agree with, the court is in danger of undermining equality law.

This ruling means people can be compelled to promote a view that they fundamentally disagree with unless they have consulted their lawyers and designed policies to cover every eventuality, which is simply not realistic.

This case shows how far the state can go in forcing someone to act against their fundamental beliefs.

We will have to wait and see if there will be further appeals to the Supreme Court.

We will also have to review whether the current law is fit for purpose given how it has been interpreted.

It now appears not just to protect people, but also particular public messages. The Chief Justice noted it was important that a 'chill factor' was not created, but many are concerned that could be the impact of this ruling.

The Equality Commission did not seek costs at the lower court, but is now asking for an estimated £88,000 following this appeal.

That will put further pressure on others not to fight a case the Commission is backing.

The court noted that the Commission did not offer any assistance to the McArthurs and that in future the Commission should give advice in such cases.

The Commission can advise before a problem arises but once a potential act of discrimination has occurred they have no mandate to mediate - this must surely change.

We have long sought a relational approach from the Commission and we have offered to help rebuild bridges with the faith community.

The McArthur family have been through the courts for standing up for their beliefs. We hope this ruling will not discourage others from boldly and graciously standing firm in their faith.

Peter Lynas is Northern Ireland director of the Evangelical Alliance

Belfast Telegraph

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