The life story of Andrew Muir, the mayor of North Down is part of Northern Ireland’s long journey towards civilisation – including the fact that as an openly gay person he made it to mayor at all. It was his Bangor reception that sparked the Great Cake Discrimination Case. Even so, the case may not be open and shut as it seems.
The law is reckoned to be unsatisfactory. There is a legal debate which hinges on whether discrimination is “direct” or “indirect.” In other words, if Ashers bakery discriminated against gays only they may have no plea of justification. But if they have objections in other circumstances their case might be arguable – like a hotelier who objected to heterosexuals as well as gays sharing a double bed. But even this distinction causes concern as a principal basis for adjudication. The fullest account of this case that I’ve read is in the Daily Mail, although it’s critical of anti-discrimination.
Ashers Baking Company – based in Northern Ireland and named after a verse in the Bible – has been warned by the Equality Commission that the law does not allow them to turn down an order to bake the cake.
The new clash between gay rights and Christian convictions began in May when an activist from the QueerSpace pressure group approached the Belfast bakery chain and ordered a cake decorated with the words ‘support gay marriage’.
The design also included the organisation’s name and two characters from Sesame Street.
The order from the activist, Gareth Lee, was accepted by shop staff.
However, the owners of the family-run company, Colin and Karen McArthur, and their son Daniel, who is manager, decided the message on the cake was contrary to their beliefs.
Mrs McArthur phoned Mr Lee to tell him the firm would not bake the cake, and to offer a refund.
The bakers have in the past refused to produce cakes showing sexual images or featuring bad language.
Mr Lee complained to the Equality Commission’s Northern Ireland branch, which warned the bakers that they now face a legal claim.
A letter from the Commission said: ‘We have advised Mr Lee that you have acted unlawfully and contrary to Regulation Five of the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006 which prohibits discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services to a person seeking or obtaining to use those goods, facilities or services on the grounds of sexual orientation.’
It said county court proceedings would start within seven days of the letter.
The bakery is now to be backed in court by the Christian Institute pressure group. The Institute lent support to Peter and Hazel Mary Bull, the Cornwall hoteliers who lost a legal battle after they refused a room to a gay couple on the grounds that they were not married.
The Supreme Court judge who made the final decision in the case, Lady Hale, has now said she believes the judgement against the Bulls was too harsh and that the law should allow Christians a ‘conscience clause.’
Mr Bull, 74, and his 70-year-old wife refused a double room at their Cornish hotel to Steven Preddy and Martyn Hall in 2008 because they were not a married heterosexual couple.
The incident led to a string of court cases, which culminated in defeat for the Bulls at the Supreme Court – where Lady Hale, leading four other judges, ruled that the rights of the gay couple outweighed the conscience of the Christian couple. Lady Hale declared in her Supreme Court ruling that we should be ‘slow to accept’ the right of Christians to discriminate against gay people.
I may have been wrong to condemn Christian B&B owners for banning gay couple because people with religious beliefs have rights too, says top judge
But in March she acknowledged that the laws which ignore Christian consciences might not be ‘sustainable’. Last week, in a highly unusual move, Lady Hale and her fellow judges ordered that the Bulls will not be liable for legal costs – a decision which spares them a huge bill which would pay for the lawyers who represented Mr Preddy and Mr Hall.
Should there be “a conscience clause” or should gays still be required to pick their way through life as an obstacle course of other’s people’s views?
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London