With Ashers gay cake ruling, judge effectively saying you can have your faith but you can't take it to work
Leading gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has come out in support of Ashers. Having claimed the original decision was a victory for equality, Mr Tatchell now concedes the law suit against the bakery was "a step too far".
This sorry saga began when a local bakery declined to decorate a cake with the words "support gay marriage". Without waiting for any explanation, the Equality Commission sent a letter alleging discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.
Their letter was described in court as a "knee-jerk" reaction and very unhelpfully framed this as a battle between religion and sexual orientation. A District Judge decided against the bakers and ordered them to pay compensation. Under the original decision, the law, which rightly protects people from discrimination, was extended to protect ideas. Most disturbingly, the judge decided what the bakers were really thinking and whether it was appropriate - the dreaded Thought Police in action.
There is considerable concern that, if this ruling stands, religion will have been effectively banished from the commercial sphere - you can have your faith, but you can't take it to work. And, so, this week the case will be heard by the Court of Appeal. Yesterday, Ashers received support from a surprising source - Peter Tatchell. Tatchell is a leading gay rights campaigner, who has previously been critical of Ashers, but has now changed his mind.
He said: "His cake request was refused, not because he was gay, but because of the message he asked for. There is no evidence that his sexuality was the reason Ashers declined his order."
Peter Tatchell is to be commended for his U-turn. The McArthur family was found to have discriminated on the grounds of sexual orientation and on the basis of religion and political opinion.
In spite of the fact that the McArthurs did not know the sexual orientation of the customer, and that they would have turned down a heterosexual customer ordering the same cake, the judge found that they discriminated on the grounds of sexual orientation. With respect to religion, a law designed to protect the belief of the customer, or an employee, has been extended and used against a business owner. Gareth Lee's beliefs were not relevant to the decision not to produce the cake - they were, and remain, unknown. To extend the law to include the religious beliefs of the supplier is a significant change in the law that will have wider implications.
Even the right to freedom of religion under the European Convention of Human Rights could not save the McArthurs.
On the issue of political discrimination, Peter Tatchell noted that the ruling set a "worrying precedent". Laws designed to heal decades of sectarian divide are now being used to create new ones - compelling people to promote political ideas with which they disagree.
"In my view, it is an infringement of freedom to require businesses to aid the promotion of ideas to which they conscientiously object. Discrimination against people should be unlawful, but not against ideas."
So says Peter Tatchell. And, for once, I couldn't agree more.
- Zoe Rogers is a researcher with the Evangelical Alliance