Northern Ireland unites behind Ashers Baking Company as equality watchdogs humiliated by stunning opinion poll findings
People of all faiths and none from across Northern Ireland have thrown their weight behind the Christian-owned Ashers Baking Company and the fundamental right of free speech in a remarkable show of unity.
A new ComRes opinion poll has revealed 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.
The survey which looked at attitudes towards free speech showed that:
- Over three quarters (79%) believe a Muslim printer should not be taken to Court for refusing to print cartoons of Mohammed.
- Over eight in 10 (82%) believe an atheist web designer should not be forced by the Courts to design a website promoting the view that God made the world in six days.
- 76% believe that an environmentalist marketing consultant refusing to work for a company that wants to start fracking in Northern Ireland should be free to decline the work without the threat of being taken to Court.
- Almost three quarters (74%) believe a printing company run by Roman Catholics should not be forced through legal action to produce adverts calling for abortion to be legalised.
The research, commissioned by the Christian Institute, has been published to coincide with the Ashers Baking Company case which is due to be heard in Belfast County Court later this week.
The ComRes poll measured opinion among 1,000 adults in Northern Ireland. It also revealed that only 27% of NI adults think it is right for the ECNI to take Ashers Baking Company to court, while 71% disagree.
And a further 77 per cent believe the ECNI should not be spending public funds pursuing Ashers through the courts.
Nine in 10 respondents agree that equality laws should be used only to protect people from discrimination and not to force people to say something they oppose.
Welcoming the massive show of public support and sympathy for Ashers, CI Director Colin Hart said:
“This poll shows that people of all faiths and none in Northern Ireland want to live in a tolerant society where the right to freedom of speech, thought and expression are protected. In bringing the case against Ashers bakery the ECNI is trying to deny people these fundamental rights. It is clear however from the research that the ECNI is out of touch with Northern Ireland society and has got this one wrong.
“It has been clear since the outset that public opinion is with Ashers. Yet, the ECNI persists and is spending vast amounts of taxpayers’ cash on this poorly thought-out and ill-conceived action. The ECNI clearly want to have their day in court but they have already lost in the court of public opinion. The poll shows that.”
General Manager of the company, Daniel McArthur said: “We have had wide-ranging support from across Northern Ireland over the last nine months and this is backed up in this survey. Whether people agree with our beliefs or not, we are delighted that they respect our right to express those beliefs and that’s what tolerance is all about.”
Last year Ashers declined an order placed at its Belfast store from a gay rights activist asking for a £36.50 cake featuring the Sesame Street puppets, Bert and Ernie, with the message, ‘Support Gay Marriage’. 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 beliefs of the owners.
But the ECNI has since launched a civil action against the company, claiming its actions violate equality laws in Northern Ireland.
A two day hearing is scheduled to take place later this week.
Pollster Andrew Hawkins of ComRes said the results indicated that only “around one in four think the Equality Commission right to prosecute”.
“Overall public sentiment in Northern Ireland appears to be robustly behind the rights of businesses to protect their own freedom of speech and religious liberty. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the overall mood of the majority of the public in Northern Ireland is against the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland taking Ashers bakery to court.”
The results revealed that around three-quarters believe that under these scenarios no-one should face court action.
There was only modest variation by demographic group. Perhaps most marked is the likelihood of the youngest age group in the study (18-24s) to support taking court action, but even among this age group no scenario attracts more than just over one-third support (37%).
Last week the CI released details of a legal opinion from leading human rights QC Aidan O’Neill, who stated that if Ashers were to lose there would be no defence to similar actions being taken against other businesses in these scenarios.
Analysing the results of his poll, Mr Hawkins stated:
“When asked to choose between freedom of speech or protection from being offended, by a ratio of around three to one people said that freedom of speech trumps the right not to be offended.
“By an overwhelming majority people also believe that it is possible to have strong anti-discrimination laws while also protecting freedom of speech.
“It flows from this therefore that almost the same proportion believe that equality laws ‘should be used to protect people from discrimination and not to force people to say something they oppose’.
“Finally, the public do support setting limits to free speech: they are evenly split over whether it should include being able to offend people ‘without being punished’.
“But this survey suggests that the point of offence where legal action is justified is not where the ECNI assumes it to be.”
ComRes interviewed 1,000 adults in Northern Ireland by telephone between the 10th and 15th March 2015. Data were weighted to be nationally representative of all adults in Northern Ireland aged 18+. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.
Background & Key Facts
Ashers Baking Company, owned by Colin and Karen McArthur, is a Christian-run bakery with seven shops around Northern Ireland.
On May 9 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 designs 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 views(1) and sexual orientation.(2)
The hearing will take place on March 26 and 27. 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)
(1) Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998
(2) Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006
(3) Source: ComRes poll, July 2014