Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Correct verdict in Ashers gay cake case, if you believe in freedom of conscience for all

By Fionola Meredith

Don't make the mistake of thinking that the Ashers case was simply a silly skirmish between religious conservatives and gay activists over some icing on a cake.

It was far more important than that. In fact it was about the right of each one of us - gay or straight, religious or secular, right or left - to choose our own beliefs and hold to them, without the strong, authoritarian arm of the state reaching in to batter us into submission.

That's the entire basis of an open, respectful and tolerant democracy, right there.

So the judgment of the Supreme Court, which unanimously declared that Gareth Lee was not discriminated against when his request for a cake with a gay marriage slogan was rejected by the bakery, was the only possible verdict, if you believe in freedom of conscience for all.

This vexatious, divisive and unbelievably costly case - we're talking nearly half a million pounds - was brought by the Equality Commission in 2014.

Ever since then, I've been saying that it was never about the customer, always about the message on the cake.

Look, if I believed for a single moment that Gareth Lee had been directly discriminated against, I would have been straight down to Ashers with my placard, ready to protest.

There can be no justification for genuine discrimination in our society, and any business found guilty of such revolting behaviour deserves to be prosecuted and hit hard where it hurts: in the pocket.

Gay people have suffered enough hostile, hateful behaviour over the decades in Northern Ireland.

There's no place for the DUP-proposed "conscience clause" either, which to my mind is a charter for legitimising discrimination.

But as the president of the Supreme Court, Lady Hale, observed, that's not what happened in this instance. "The bakers did not refuse to fulfil [Mr Lee's] order because of his sexual orientation," she said. "They would have refused to make such a cake for any customer, irrespective of their sexual orientation. Their objection was to the message on the cake, not to the personal characteristics of Mr Lee".

She added: "Accordingly, this court holds that there was no discrimination on the ground of the sexual orientation of Mr Lee."

We should all be celebrating.

The fundamental human right not to be forced to express approval for a particular political position has been resoundingly upheld.

Significantly, the veteran gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell welcomed the judgment. He said: "This verdict is a victory for freedom of expression.

"As well as meaning that Ashers cannot be legally forced to aid the promotion of same-sex marriage, it also means that gay bakers cannot be compelled to decorate cakes with anti-gay marriage slogans."

As Tatchell added, this also includes the right to refuse messages that are sexist and xenophobic.

Which is just the way things should be in a fair and just society, isn't it? If I ran a feminist bakery, for example, I wouldn't want pro-life activists coming in and demanding I make cupcakes with a slogan like 'abortion is murder' in pink icing on top.

I have to say, I was glad when Peter Tatchell weighed in.

I was getting tired of being one of the few liberal-minded people to stand alongside the McArthurs on this particular issue. Despite being a vocal supporter of gay rights for many years, including same-sex marriage, and frequently speaking out against the chokehold religious fundamentalism continues to exert on the politics of Northern Ireland, I know some people regarded me as a traitor to the cause.

Up popped the old Troubles-era mantra, beloved of ideologues with a one-track mind: you're either with us or against us.

It was truly saddening to hear Gareth Lee say that the rejection of his order made him feel like a second-class citizen. Gay rights have a long way to go in Northern Ireland, and deeply engrained prejudice undoubtedly still exists.

But if the seemingly endless saga of the gay cake tells us anything, it's that the answer to religious intolerance is not more intolerance.

Belfast Telegraph

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