First Minister Peter Robinson has accused the Equality Commission of spending up to £33,000 to seek court damages worth £500 from a Christian-owned bakery.
The commission has brought a civil case against Ashers Baking Company after it refused to bake a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan. The two-day hearing is due in the High Court later this week.
The DUP leader said: "When you consider that they have set aside the potential of spending £33,000 on this court case where they are seeking damages of £500 against Ashers, there is a better use that could be put to that money, particularly in the tight fiscal situation the Executive faces." Ashers is facing the action after it refused to supply a pro-gay marriage cake on grounds of the owners' religious views.
A new poll released yesterday found that more than 70% of people believe it is wrong for a Christian bakery to be taken to court over its refusal to make a cake supporting gay marriage. As the case approaches, the debate has intensifed between Christian-based groups, including church leaders, and pro-gay groups.
A human rights academic has claimed that businesses owned by Christians have a legal way of providing services while not approving of gay relationships.
Professor Steven Greer has suggested that busin esses can print a disclaimer on invoices, websites, and other business documents, to say that compliance with statutory requirements does not constitute approval of the activities in question. In a commentary piece, the Bristol University professor argues that the courts need to strike a balance between competing rights and interests.
Mr Greer believes that a 'conscience clause' bill proposed to the Assembly by the DUP's Paul Givan has little chance of ever being introduced as it would be repealed by Westminster and legally challenged in Strasbourg.
He suggests: "Those providing goods and services in Northern Ireland who do not approve of gay relationships, could and should simply issue a disclaimer on their invoices, websites, and other business documents to the effect that compliance with relevant statutory requirements does not necessarily constitute approval of the activities in question."
Churches across Northern Ireland have been encouraged by the Christian Institute to highlight a support meeting to their members tonight at Belfast's Waterfront Hall while pro-gay rights rallies have been held in various towns.
There could be a way round the difficulties thrown up by the Ashers case, writes Prof Steven Greer:
This Thursday, the District Judges Court in Belfast will begin hearing a case, brought by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland on behalf of gay activist Mr Gareth Lee, against Ashers Baking Company for alleged breach of statutory duty not to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of goods or services.
On the basis of strongly held Christian beliefs, the bakery declined an order from Mr Lee for a cake decorated with Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie in a friendly but not intimate embrace, the logo of the campaign group ‘QueerSpace’, and the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’.
There seems little doubt that Ashers will lose the litigation, and that Mr Lee will be modestly compensated, because the legislation in question, the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006, does not provide an exemption on any ground, including religious faith.
Possibly anticipating this outcome, DUP Assembly member, Paul Givan, is seeking to provide one by way of a Private Members Bill supported by his party and the Catholic Church amongst others. Mr Givan’s amendment would not legalise all refusals to supply goods and services to gays in Northern Ireland.
It would, instead, provide a ‘conscience clause’ permitting those with strongly held religious views to avoid ‘endorsing, promoting or facilitating behaviour or beliefs’ which conflict with these convictions. Some have claimed that the current position in Northern Ireland is ‘Christianophobic’ — intolerant of and discriminatory towards Christians. And, according to First Minister Peter Robinson, the Equality Commission’s case amounts simply to ‘bullying’.
For these and others, the proposed amendment would, merely provide an appropriate, measured solution to a genuine conflict between the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, on the one hand, and the right not to be discriminated against due to sexual preference on the other. By contrast, others regard it as an attempt to legalise homophobia.
The right not to be discriminated against on the basis of sexual preference is clear in international human rights law with, for example, the decriminalization of private, consensual, adult, gay sex mandatory throughout the 47-member Council of Europe, no matter how strong national or regional opposition. And for good reason.
Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people have long suffered, not just discrimination, but often savage mistreatment merely for claiming identities or engaging in private, consensual, adult sexual activities, of which others disapprove. The scope of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is, however, less clear.
Since it unquestionably includes the right not to be compelled to believe against conscience, religious conservatives are well within their rights to regard gay sex as inherently wrong because God forbids it.
But the permissibility of the expression of religious belief, in commercial and other spheres, hinges fundamentally upon its consequences, including and especially how others are affected.
Were Mr Givan’s amendment to be passed, same-sex couples in Northern Ireland could, for example, be lawfully denied a table at a restaurant, a room in a hotel, or a mortgage, on the grounds that this would otherwise endorse or facilitate same-sex unions.
But, apart from a sense of discomfort, distaste or outrage, it is not at all clear what loss or damage is suffered by those who feel that being required to provide gays with customised goods and services compels them to act contrary to their core religious beliefs.
Such a ‘loss’, if a loss it is at all, pales into insignificance compared with the tangible and potentially substantial damage which could be sustained by gay couples in such circumstances.
There is, in any case, a simpler solution to these difficulties. Instead of an exemption from the 2006 regulations, those providing goods and services in Northern Ireland who do not approve of gay relationships, could and should simply issue a disclaimer on their invoices, websites, and other business documents to the effect that compliance with relevant statutory requirements does not necessarily constitute approval of the activities in question.
Steven Greer was born and raised in Belfast and is currently Professor of Human Rights at the University of Bristol Law School