QC warns Equality Commission for Northern Ireland faces avalanche of cases over Ashers Baking Company gay cake civil action
The Christian Institute
Wednesday 18 March 2015
For immediate use
The equality watchdog has been warned it will face an avalanche of cases if it wins its civil action against a Christian-owned bakery which refused to decorate a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan.
A leading human rights QC has written a legal opinion on the matter which goes before the courts later this month.
Aidan O’Neill QC has outlined the dramatic consequences which could follow if Ashers Baking Company loses.
And the implications could impact on huge numbers of businesses that may decide to turn away custom based on their firmly-held beliefs.
Ashers is being dragged through the courts for refusing to make a cake with the words “Support Gay Marriage”.
The QC states that if Ashers lose there would also be no defence to similar actions being taken against other businesses in any of the following scenarios:
- A Muslim printer refusing a contract requiring the printing of cartoons of the Mohammed
- An atheist web designer refusing to design a website presenting as scientific fact the claim that God made the world in six days
- A Christian film company refusing to produce a “female-gaze/feminist” erotic film
- A Christian baker refusing to take an order to make a cake celebrating Satanism
- A T-shirt company owned by lesbians declining to print T-shirts with a message describing gay marriage as an “abomination”
- A printing company run by Roman Catholics declining an order to produce adverts calling for abortion on demand to be legalised.
The legal opinion has been drawn up at the request of The Christian Institute (CI) which is supporting Ashers in its court battle.
In the opinion, the QC states the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI) appears to have forgotten that the case does not concern itself simply with equality law but also focuses on human rights law.
“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 in any of these scenarios.”
Colin Hart, director of the CI, said Ashers can only lose the case if discrimination law is wrongly applied and free speech rights under article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights are set aside.
“This is a truly alarming case with far-reaching implications for freedom of speech. It’s wrong for the law to force people to say things they don’t believe.
“Ashers were asked to create a cake that promotes gay marriage. But people should be free to disagree.
“It’s wrong to force people to use their creative skills to promote a cause they fundamentally disagree with.
“Ashers serve gay customers all the time. But they didn’t want to promote gay marriage.
“This is about taking issue with the message not the messenger.
“It’s about principles not personalities.
“It’s about believing in the right to have the fundamental freedom to live by long-standing and legitimately-held religious beliefs and not be constrained by the spurious diktat of a politically correct, Big Brother, metropolitan elite determined on imposing its liberal, secular agenda on people of faith.
“The ECNI say it’s about discrimination.
“They are correct as it is Ashers which is being discriminated against for the Christian views of the owners.
“Instead of promoting equality, the ECNI want to make people who believe in traditional marriage second class citizens.”
Mr Hart said the case against the bakery was so flawed that even Jeffrey Dudgeon, Northern Ireland’s leading gay rights campaigner, had spoken out against the ECNI.
Mr Dudgeon has stated:
“I am nervous of gay zealotry, or any type of zealotry against Christians. I think things have gone too far in that direction.
“When it comes to Ashers and the cake, I don’t think there was ever any intention to start that dispute. I am concerned that the Equality Commission have now added political discrimination to the discrimination on sexual orientation as a ground on running their case against Ashers.
“I think they have twisted the thing about and it is unwise. It is a test case and this is a test that would be best put aside.”
Ashers has the backing of the CI’s Legal Defence Fund which supports Christians facing difficulties for holding to their religious beliefs in an increasingly secular society.
A public appeal has met with significant numbers of donations which will go to cover costs.
Mr Hart said: “We have been delighted with the generous public response since our appeal for help in January. But we require all the financial assistance we can receive, especially as this case may go to appeal. We again urge the public to help us help Ashers and others like them.”
Read legal opinion here
Background & Key Facts
Ashers Baking Company, owned by Colin and Karen McArthur, is a Christian-run bakery with seven shops around Northern Ireland.
On 9 May 2014, volunteer LGBT activist, Mr Gareth Lee, asked for a cake to be decorated with the slogan “Support Gay Marriage”. The order was accepted by shop staff but later declined by the owners.
When Director Karen McArthur telephoned Mr Lee to explain why they could not take his order, he said she was being nice about it.
The order was declined because it promoted same-sex marriage not because the customer was gay. It was the message the bakery was objecting to not the customer.
General manager Daniel McArthur has publicly stated the firm is happy to bake cakes for anyone.
The owners were not aware of the sexual orientation of the customer and therefore could not have discriminated against him on those grounds.
The order would have been declined regardless of whether the customer was heterosexual or homosexual because the message clashed with the deeply-held convictions of the owners.
They have refused other orders in the past such as images incorporating nudity or bad language.
The McArthurs and their company are being taken to court by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI). It claims they have broken discrimination laws covering political and religious views1 and sexual orientation.2
The hearing will take place on 26 and 27 March. The judgment is likely to take several weeks. Ashers Baking Company is receiving legal support from The Christian Institute.
- MLAs in the NI Assembly have voted on three occasions not to redefine marriage – most recently in April 2014 by 51 votes to 43.
- The ECNI is funded by the taxpayer – and has an annual budget in excess of £6m.
- The ECNI is in favour of introducing same-sex marriage.
- Its website states: “The Commission supports the introduction of legislation permitting same sex marriage…including sufficient safeguards for religious organisations”
- A recent poll revealed 60% of British adults think it is “disproportionately heavy handed” for the ECNI to take Ashers Baking Company to court.3
- Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998
- Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006
- Source: ComRes poll, July 2014
For more detailed information please refer to The Christian Institute Fact Sheet from July 2014