In an astonishing ruling yesterday, the Supreme Court struck a major blow for freedom of speech and expression. The five most senior judges in the UK unanimously found in favour of Ashers Baking Co, the Christian family firm in Northern Ireland which declined to make a cake carrying the slogan ‘Support gay marriage’.
The legal action was originally brought against the bakery in Belfast by gay rights activist Gareth Lee of the campaign group QueerSpace, who won his case initially in the county court and then at the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal.
The judges concluded that the decision by the bakery owners, the McArthur family, was about ‘the message not the messenger’; that there was no discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, and that equality law does not compel people to say something with which they profoundly disagree.
It was a stunning 5-0 victory for the family who have had to endure four and half years of pressure from the Equality Commission of Northern Ireland (ECNI), the taxpayer-funded body which relentlessly pursued them through the courts.
More importantly, it is a victory for freedom of speech and expression because the essence of this ruling is that those of faith and conscience cannot be forced to promote messages they profoundly disagree with.
It is not a licence for discrimination, as some ill-informed people claimed on social media. Treating people differently because of their race, religion, sexuality etc remains an offence. What it does mean is that a Muslim printer may not be forced to print cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, a lesbian web designer may decline work from a group opposed to gay marriage and civil partnerships, or a Jewish publisher may not be forced to print a book denying the Holocaust.
Put another way, a Christian campaign group could not force Mr Lee, if he were a baker, to promote a message that read ‘Don’t support gay marriage’.
While many, including myself, raised a glass to the McArthurs and this commonsense ruling, questions remain. Why did the ECNI unilaterally decide the bakers were guilty back in 2014? This was raised in the ruling. Will the ECNI appeal? Certainly their legal representative held open the door in an interview after the judgement was handed down. Why has this state-funded quango shown no contrition toward either the McArthurs or the hard-pressed taxpayers who now look almost certain to pick up the entire legal bill, estimated to be in excess of £500,000? And was this really the most pressing equality issue in Northern Ireland that needed this type of heavy-handed response?
This case also raises important questions about access to justice. It was clear from the word go that the quango had abandoned any pretence about standing up for the rights of those of faith. Had it not been for the support of their family, church and community, I am sure that most couples would have given up this fight a long time ago. And had it not been for the sustained help and support of the Christian Institute’s https://www.christian.org.uk/ legal fund, which has covered the huge bills that were racked up, the ECNI would have won simply by crushing the McArthur family under the weight of the state and its almost unlimited resources.
The truth is that most people lack the resources or wider support to maintain a fight of this nature for justice, and although the forces of common sense have won a major victory in this case, those of us who care about free speech must remain vigilant. We must rely on the courts to be this sensible on every occasion and as we saw in the lower courts, this can be problematic.
On Tuesday, I highlighted the need for politicians to stand up for free speech, not just in this case, but in many other examples where our rights to discuss, debate and most importantly to disagree are being trampled on.
Recently the universities minister Sam Gyimah has spoken about the need to protect debate on campuses in the UK, but despite the rhetoric, little has changed. Peter Tatchell, Julie Bindel and even Germaine Greer have all been ‘no-platformed’, while Christian Unions and many other groups with traditional views have found themselves blocked from booking venues, or pushed to the margins as they are banned from so-called ‘safe spaces’. Some young people have responded to this by creating free speech zones: how sad that these are needed.
Yesterday’s victory, though important, is the not the end. We must all redouble our efforts to turn back the ultra-PC brigade who have been so successful in closing down dissent and debate in the last decade. If we do not, next time we might not be so lucky. Perhaps next time, the weight of the apparatus of the State might win and this will diminish us all.
· The case follows a decision in 2014 by Ashers to decline an order placed at its Belfast store by gay rights activist Gareth Lee asking for a £36.50 cake featuring the Sesame Street puppets, Bert and Ernie, with the campaign slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’. The cake was for a campaign event calling for same-sex marriage to be introduced in Northern Ireland.
· The customer also wanted the cake to feature the logo of a Belfast-based campaign group called QueerSpace. Ashers refused to make the cake because it carried a message contrary to the firmly-held Christian beliefs of the owners.
· Ashers Baking Co has been assisted by The Christian Institute, a non-denominational national charity which since 1991 has been working on issues including religious liberty, marriage and the family.
· Ashers Baking Company Limited was set up in 1992 by Colin and Karen McArthur, who are the owners and directors.
· The McArthurs’ son, Daniel, is the company’s general manager. All three are Christians. They had previously refused other cake printing orders which included pornographic pictures and offensive language, since they clearly conflicted with the teachings of their Christian faith.
· The legal action against Ashers Baking Co has been funded by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland – a taxpayer-funded public body with an annual budget of over £5million.
· The ECNI claimed the company’s actions violated equality laws in Northern Ireland and alleged discrimination under two anti-discrimination statutes – The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (NI) 2006 and The Fair Employment and Treatment (NI) Order 1998. These claims have now been comprehensively rejected by the Supreme Court.
· The ECNI website states: ‘The Commission supports the introduction of legislation permitting same sex marriage including sufficient safeguards for religious organisations’.
· The Northern Ireland Assembly has rejected five attempts to redefine marriage since October 2012.