Bakery legal action is ill-judged
The more we look at the decision by the Equality Commission to bring a bakery to court because it refused on deeply held religious grounds to supply a customer with a cake bearing a pro-gay marriage message, the more ill-judged it appears. That is not to deny the Commission its role as an equality watchdog, but this is a case it cannot win in the court of public opinion no matter what the legal outcome.
There already is a groundswell of opposition to the action against Ashers Bakery Company and that will be given further impetus by the opinion of a leading UK human rights lawyer which we carry in this newspaper today.
Human rights legislation is often sneered at but in this instance it does appear to be on the side of common sense. Aidan O'Neill QC argues that if the Equality Commission wins its court case it could lead to an avalanche of other litigation against firms who turn away business because of their beliefs. The weakness of the Commission's case, he contends, is that it ignores basic human rights and concentrates solely on equality legilsation.
To the lay person it does seem incredible that a firm can end up in the dock essentially for refusing to endorse an action - gay marriage - which is not yet legal in Northern Ireland. That does appear to fly in the face of common sense.
Mr O'Neill outlines other cases which could result in litigation against firms. They may be hypothetical but not unbelievable.
If his opinion that a victory for the Equality Commission would led to it taking further cases, the question must be asked if we can afford such legal expense. The Commission's case is being funded out of the public purse and we know how stretched that is at the moment.
The Commission's action has united the main Churches here in opposition to the court case. They naturally defend the right of adherents to stick to their religious principles. And that is a view shared by many who may rarely darken the door of a church.
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The idea of a conscience clause in equality legislation has a simplistic appeal, as long as it is not used as a get-out-of-jail-free card for those who would seek to discriminate against sections of society. But there certainly needs to be a debate on how to make the law fairer.
We cannot reach the situation where people are forced to espouse ideals or causes that run contrary to their own legitimate beliefs. That is where we are heading at present.