Tomorrow the Supreme Court will rule on the Ashers Bakery case. This is after the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI) decided to sue the owners of a family bakery who declined to produce a cake carrying a picture of the Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie cuddling and the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’.
The Christian owners of the bakery, the McArthurs, said that making the cake would amount to endorsing the campaign for the introduction of gay marriage in the region and thus go against their religious convictions.
The man who placed the order, Gareth Lee, an activist for the campaign group Queer Space, was able to purchase a cake in the requested design from another bakery. Despite this the full apparatus of the state was turned on this small business, dragging the owners through the courts for the last four years.
Had it not been for the support of the Christian Institute, the people of Northern Ireland and many more, including The Conservative Woman, I am sure the McArthur family would have been forced to give up a long time ago.
Setting aside the hundreds of thousands this has cost the bakers and the taxpayer, which has been widely criticised, the implications for freedom of speech will be profound whatever the UK’s highest court decides.
In 2015, the Christian Institute asked leading human rights lawyer Aidan O’Neill QC what would be the impact of a ruling against the McArthur family.
Mr O’Neill was clear that a finding against Ashers Baking Co would open the floodgates to similar complaints across the UK and diminish the ability of business owners to act in accordance with their morals and beliefs, while opening them to constant intimidation and bullying.
For example, an atheist web designer could be taken to court for refusing to design a website presenting as scientific fact the claim that God made the world in six days. Or a Christian film company would not be able to refuse to produce hardcore porn. A clothing company owned by a LGBT couple would be unable to decline an order for T-shirts carrying a message describing gay marriage as an abomination.
And what about a printing company owned by a vegan who believes the production of halal meat is particularly cruel – should this person be forced to print leaflets for a butcher who sells these products?
As Mr O’Neill concluded, ‘If the approach of the ECNI were correctly based in law – which I do not consider it to be – then on the basis that the law does not protect the fundamental right, within the commercial context of supplying services, to hold opinions nor guarantee any negative freedom of expression, there would be no defence to similar actions being taken against individuals or companies supplying services.’
Given the profound impact this could have on freedom of speech and expression, why are politicians from the major Westminster parties so conspicuously absent from this debate? Despite all the rhetoric about how they desperately want a more moral market, if this case succeeds it will continue to drive those with strong beliefs and views from the public square.
If this happens the only beneficiaries will be the large corporations who believe in little else but a reasonable return and their profit margins.
I hope that the ruling tomorrow will act as a wake-up call to the Government that this state-sponsored cultural tyranny must end, or else it will not only be small Christian bakers that suffer, but anyone who holds a strong religious, or philosophical view. As human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell told the Guardian: ‘Northern Ireland’s laws against discrimination on the grounds of political opinion were framed in the context of decades of conflict. They were designed to heal the sectarian divide by preventing the denial of jobs, housing and services to people because of their politics. There was never an intention that this law should compel people to promote political ideas with which they disagree . . . In my view, it is an infringement of freedom to require businesses to aid the promotion of ideas to which they conscientiously object. Discrimination against people should be unlawful, but not against ideas.’