Nelson McCausland: Supreme Court Ashers judgment in ‘gay cake’ case is vindication of Ashers’ right to freedom of belief
Yesterday’s decision by Britain’s highest court was a victory for civil and religious liberty. By Nelson McCausland
The Supreme Court decision in what has become known as the ‘gay cake’ case is not only a victory for Ashers Bakery and for the McArthur family, it is an important victory for religious freedom, here in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom.
It was back in May 2014 that Gareth Lee, a gay activist and member of Queerspace, ordered a cake with a message supporting ‘gay marriage’. It was for a gay rights event in Bangor, which was to be hosted by Alliance councillor Andrew Muir, then the Mayor of North Down Borough Council.
The order was refused, because of the message that had been requested for the cake and the matter was then taken by Gareth Lee to the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.
In March 2015, the case came before the Belfast County Court and District Judge Isobel Brownlie found in favour of Gareth Lee and the Equality Commission.
Ashers Bakery appealed the decision and it was heard by the Appeal Court in Belfast, with the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan, and two other senior judges. The Appeal Court gave its ruling in October 2015 and found that Ashers had discriminated against Mr Lee.
Now, four years after the original incident, the Supreme Court has ruled in favour of Ashers, thereby overturning the earlier decisions at the County Court and the Appeal Court in Belfast.
The Supreme Court in London is the final court of appeal in the United Kingdom and the judgment of the Supreme Court was clear, coherent, unequivocal and unanimous.
This judgment must have come as a great relief to the McArthur family, who have had this issue hanging over them for the past four years.
They have a strong Christian faith and they have displayed great Christian grace, but we are all human and they must be relieved.
It will also have come as a relief to the Christian Institute and others, who have been working to support Ashers Bakery, and a relief to the many people who have been profoundly concerned that religious freedom was being eroded.
The Supreme Court judgment drew on the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), especially articles 9 and 10: “Article 9 protects the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the right to manifest one’s religion, or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
“The freedom not to express an opinion which one does not hold is also protected by Article 10, which provides that everyone has the right to freedom of expression.”
What we believe influences how we behave and that is why the reference in Article 9 to “the right to manifest one’s religion” is so important.
I am sure that lawyers will now write lengthy articles analysing the judgment, but I am unable to understand how the judges at the County and Appeal courts in Belfast reached their decisions.
The Supreme Court judgment was unanimous and overturned their earlier judgments.
The Supreme Court judgment should be an encouragement to Christians and to other social conservatives to stand firm for what they believe.
Mr Lee had the support and the resources of the Equality Commission, but, in the end, the McArthur family was vindicated.
Too often, the public square is surrendered too easily to those who want to marginalise a Christian worldview.
As regards the Equality Commission, it has seemed to many people that the commission was pursuing an agenda of intolerance that would deny people the right to manifest their faith.
The Supreme Court judgment should be a wake-up call to the Equality Commission, but their initial response has been less than encouraging.
This particular judgment was made in relation to ‘gay marriage’ on the basis of Articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights,
but the principles of freedom of religion and freedom of expression, as set out in the ECHR, apply across a number of contentious issues and this judgment is, therefore, a landmark judgment.
The phrase “civil and religious liberty” has been part of our political vocabulary for more than three centuries and these are principles we do well to defend.