Public rally behind bakers being sued in pro-gay marriage cake row
Poll shows high levels of support for Ashers Baking Co.
Court case could open the floodgates to hundreds more cases
The public are rallying behind the McArthur family, the bakers being sued for refusing to make a cake supporting gay marriage, says a Christian group.
The Christian Institute (CI), says that there has been a “massive” and “spontaneous” outpouring of public support for the family-run bakers, with thousands attending public meetings, sending messages of support, and buying the bakery’s products.
And it highlights polling which shows the public not only in Northern Ireland but across the entire United Kingdom overwhelmingly back the right of businessmen and women to act in accordance with their religious and philosophical convictions.
The case involves a family-run bakery which declined to produce a cake carrying a picture of the Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie in an embrace and the slogan “Support Gay Marriage”.
The bakers are happy to serve everyone, and the gay man who ordered this cake on behalf of a gay rights group was an existing customer. But they said that producing the cake with the political message on it would amount to endorsing the campaign for the introduction of gay marriage in the Province and would go against their religious beliefs.
Although the customer was able to purchase a cake from a nearby bakery, he complained to the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI), which has brought the case, for which it has set aside £40,000 in potential legal costs.
Speaking during the three-day hearing, David Scoffield QC, representing the bakery, criticised the ECNI, saying “As a matter of pure domestic law properly analysed there was no discrimination in this case.
“The stark position of the ECNI is that a conscience informed by religious beliefs has no place in the commercial sphere at all.
“Their logic is businesses must provide all goods however offensive to religious beliefs or however gravely they injure conscience.”
And The Christian Institute warns that if the ECNI succeeds in its case against Ashers Baking Co, it will open the floodgates to hundreds of similar cases.
Simon Calvert, a spokesman for the Christian group, commented: “When we asked top human rights lawyer Aidan O’Neill QC about the implications of this case he warned of an avalanche of similar cases if the litigation was successful.
“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 ‘female-gaze/feminist’ porn. While a clothing company owned by a lesbian couple would be unable to decline an order for T-shirts carrying a message describing gay marriage as an ‘abomination’.”
“As Mr O’Neill said in his own words, ‘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’.”
The group also highlights new ComRes polling that shows strong support for the bakers, echoing an earlier poll of adults in Northern Ireland. Asked whether a bakery run by Christians should be forced to take an order to make a cake promoting gay marriage, the poll found just over one in ten (13 per cent) agreed, while nearly seven in ten (68 per cent) disagreed.
The ComRes poll of more than two thousand British adults asked: “In each of the following situations, please tell me whether they should be considered grounds for taking someone to court, or not…”
More than seven in ten (71 per cent) of those surveyed believe a Muslim printer should be able to refuse to print cartoons of Mohammed without being taken to court, with just one in ten saying they should not. 68 per cent said a printing company run by Roman Catholics should be able to decline an order to produce adverts calling for abortion to be legalised without being taken to court, with just twelve per cent saying they should not. A similar number, 71 per cent, said a bakery run by Christians should be able to refuse an order to make a cake celebrating Satanism without being taken to court, fewer than one in ten (nine per cent) said they should not.
Mr Calvert concluded: “The McArthur family have always denied any discrimination and have maintained that it is unreasonable and unlawful to force them to make a cake bearing a campaign slogan that goes against their beliefs.
“We have argued that this goes against the spirit of the law, is hugely unpopular with the public, and will lead to all sorts of problems if the ECNI wins.
“It is a fundamental tenet of free speech and freedom of religion in the UK that businessmen and women should not be forced to help express views contrary to their own, and yet this taxpayer-funded quango is saying exactly that. This case is deeply troubling, no wonder so many ordinary people have come out in support of the bakers.”
Notes to editors:
ComRes interviewed 2,020 British adults online between the 18th and 19th March 2015. Data were weighted to be nationally representative of all British adults aged 18+. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Full tables at www.comres.co.uk
The case follows a decision last year by Ashers Baking Company to decline an order placed at its Belfast store from a gay rights activist asking for a £36.50 cake featuring the message, ‘Support Gay Marriage’ alongside the Sesame Street puppets, Bert and Ernie.
The customer also wanted the cake to feature the logo of a Belfast-based campaign group called “Queerspace”. The McArthur family, who own and run the business, refused to make the cake because it carried a message contrary to their firmly-held Christian beliefs.
But the ECNI launched a civil action against the company, claiming its actions violate equality laws in Northern Ireland and alleging discrimination under two anti-discrimination statutes – the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (NI) 2006 and the Fair Employment and Treatment Order (NI) 1998.
The case raises key issues of public importance regarding the protection of rights to freedom of expression and freedom of conscience and religion.
Leading human rights QC Aidan O’Neill issued a legal opinion stating 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 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 pornographic 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.