By George Caffrey
Ashers Bakery in Northern Ireland have lost their appeal against a ruling which determined that they had acted unlawfully when refusing to bake a cake which displayed a pro-gay marriage slogan. They objected on the grounds of their personal Christian faith and the consequent opposition to same-sex marriage legislation. This ruling is a big step backwards if we wish to live in an open and free society.
The family-run bakery was judged to have discriminated against the complainant, gay rights activist Gareth Lee, on the grounds of his sexuality. There are numerous problems with this ruling which ultimately render it not just wrong but regressive.
Firstly, if we wish to be live in a genuinely free and open society, a bakery should be perfectly, legally, entitled to discriminate against someone on the grounds of their sexuality. We, the public, should then be perfectly entitled to publicise the bigotry of the owners and to boycott the business accordingly. If we do our job properly, businesses that do display prejudice and discrimination will fail. It is not the job of the government to be policing this for us.
Regardless of your view of my policy prescription above, and I am willing to concede that there are perhaps merits to anti-discrimination laws, they simply do not apply here. The bakery did not discriminate against Mr. Lee, they objected to the message requested to be on the cake. Had Mr. Lee been asking for a different message, one they did not object to, they would not doubt have printed it for him. Equally, had anyone else, straight or gay, asked for the message ‘Support Gay Marriage’, they would have refused. Despite this rather obvious point, the three judges that heard the case disagreed. They argued that printing such a message did not entail promoting or supporting the cause:
“The fact that a baker provides a cake for a particular team or portrays witches on a Halloween cake does not indicate any support for either.”
There are two points that make this statement staggeringly stupid. Firstly, the analogy is of course fatuous. The request was for the cake to read ‘Support Gay Marriage’. Quite how this could be interpreted as doing anything other than ‘supporting gay marriage’ is beyond me. Secondly, I highly doubt the same argument would be accepted if used in defence of making a cake that displayed the words ‘White Supremacy’ or ‘Kill All Jews’. Would the defendants be able to argue that ‘printing these words does not indicate support for either’? I suspect not. Ultimately, there simply isn’t an argument here to conclude that the bakery discriminated against Mr. Lee in any way.
Finally, where does this ruling leave the state of our freedom of expression in this country? This case is not really about discrimination towards an individual or group because, as explained above, there is no case to support such a charge. This case is another step towards ensuring that everyone expresses government sponsored, and enforced, attitudes. There is now a ‘correct answer’ on the issue of gay marriage, one must be in favour of it, or be labelled a bigot. And this is now true on a huge range of, if not all, issues. For a society that regularly congratulates itself on its diversity, why are we so worried about diversity of opinion? This is as important, if not more important than any other and we relinquish it at our peril. Sadly, this case is a step in that direction.