Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Ashers verdict upholds the right of free speech and free conscience

Editor's Viewpoint

What became known as the 'gay cake' court case was often simplistically portrayed as a stand-off between a set of Christian beliefs and the rights of the LGBT community. It was a very parochial view that may have suited some people's political agenda, but its ramifications went much further, embracing such fundamental rights as the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and the right to freedom of expression.

Essentially, the unanimous verdict of the five judges of the Supreme Court - the highest court in the land - was that the owners of Ashers bakery, which refused to provide a gay man with a cake bearing a message supporting gay marriage, did not discriminate against him because of his sexual orientation, but refused his order because of their deeply held objection to the message.

As Lady Hale, president of the Supreme Court, said when reading out the verdict, the company would have refused to provide that cake bearing that slogan to a heterosexual customer.

Most people will see this as a common sense conclusion to a case that has spanned three court appearances, 1,600 days and cost in the region of £500,000.

While the Equality Commission has been criticised for spending around half of that money - which comes from the taxpayer - it can argue that the court cases eventually produced some clarity on fundamental issues and rights.

These rights come from the European Convention on Human Rights, drafted in 1950 as a response to the horror of what happened in Europe during the Second World War, when that most fundamental right - the right to life - was taken from millions of people. The hope was that the Convention would prevent such horrors being visited on the Continent in future. It was also seen as a bulwark against communist subversion of member states of the Council of Europe, which drafted the 18 articles.

The Convention was written in general terms and it has been up to courts to interpret the articles. What this case has done is to add weight to those articles which were pertinent to the issues being judged.

In that way it sets parameters within which those considering bringing other cases in future can make a more reasoned judgment on the likely outcome.

It is good that the rights in this case were determined, because unless the Convention is regularly challenged, rights can atrophy or fall into disuse or get chipped away until their original intention is diminished.

While the Equality Commission and the LGBT community have reacted with natural dismay to the verdict of the Supreme Court, they should heed the strong words of Lady Hale that it should not be thought in any way to diminish the need to protect gay people and people who support gay marriage from discrimination.

And she added: "It is deeply humiliating, and an affront to human dignity, to deny someone a service because of that person's race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion or belief. But that is not what happened in this case."

These are important statements which undermine those who criticise the verdict or suggest that it makes the LGBT community feel like second class citizens.

Instead, by copper-fastening the rights of everyone to freedom of conscience and freedom of speech, it does a service to the whole of society. If only for that reason, the Equality Commission would be unwise to continue with this case.

Belfast Telegraph

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