A columnist who is in favour of same-sex marriage has expressed support for the Christian-owned Ashers Baking Company, in order to protect the “vital” principle of freedom of speech.
Writing in The Belfast Telegraph, Fionola Meredith said that forcing Ashers to endorse a cause with which it disagrees would do “nothing to advance the cause of equality”.
She made the comments ahead of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland’s court case against Ashers, which starts on Thursday.
The Commission claims that Ashers broke discrimination laws by declining to decorate a campaign cake with the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’ last year.
Fionola Meredith said: “How would the principles of fair treatment, tolerance and respect for all be furthered if Ashers was compelled to squirt out these controversial words?
“The answer, of course, is not one iota. All that would be achieved is a form of state-enforced hypocrisy”.
She said her stance is “inexplicable” to some of her “‘liberal’ friends”, and that standing with Ashers and its supporters is not her “natural home”.
But she explained: “This is not about Right or Left, secular or religious, gay or straight.”
She added it’s about “remaining faithful” to the vital principle of freedom of speech, which is diluted “at our peril”.
Freedom of expression
Meredith noted that Ashers refused the cake order on the grounds of the message they were asked to endorse, not the sexual orientation of the customer.
A new poll commissioned by The Christian Institute, which is backing Ashers, has revealed overwhelming support for freedom of expression.
The survey of 1,000 adults of all faiths and none from across Northern Ireland found that 90 per cent of voters say equality laws “should be used to protect people from discrimination and not to force people to say something they oppose”.
Meredith concluded: “You don’t get everyone singing sweetly from the same hymn book – or whatever the secular equivalent may be – by using state power to dictate what songs they must sing.”
Last week, a leading human rights lawyer warned that the Commission could face an avalanche of future cases if Ashers loses.
In a new legal opinion, Aidan O’Neill QC stated there would be no defence to actions being taken against businesses in similar situations, such as a Muslim printer not wanting to print cartoons of Mohammed, or a Christian film company refusing to produce an erotic film.