Amy and Daniel McArthur Photo: Photopress via Telegraph
A well-known British gay rights activist, Peter Tatchell, has changed his mind about the prosecution of a Northern Irish business couple over their refusal to provide a wedding cake iced with the slogan, “Support Gay Marriage”.
“Much as I wish to defend the gay community, I also want to defend freedom of conscience, expression and religion,” wrote Tatchell in The Guardian prior to a hearing of the case in the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal this week.
Last year, the Belfast High Court found that Daniel and Amy McArthur, who run Ashers bakery in Belfast, had unlawfully discriminated against a customer when they refused a request for the cake and were ordered to pay £500 in damages. Ashers Bakery appealed the decision. Read more about the case here and the Court’s ruling here.
“Like most gay and equality campaigners,” said Tatchell, he initially condemned the Christian couple for refusing to produce the cake for a gay customer, Gareth Lee. He supported Lee’s legal claim against Ashers and the subsequent verdict. “Now, two days before the case goes to appeal, I have changed my mind.”
The Belfast judge found that Ashers discriminated against Lee both on the ground of sexual orientation and political opinion – his advocacy of same-sex marriage. (Northern Ireland does not yet permit same-sex marriage.)
While he “profoundly” disagrees with the McArthurs’ views about marriage and homosexuality, Tatchell believes the Court erred in determining that they discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation.
“[The plaintiff’s] cake request was refused not because he was gay, but because of the message he asked for. There is no evidence that his sexuality was the reason Ashers declined his order”.
He also disagrees with the “political opinion” finding:
This finding of political discrimination against Lee sets a worrying precedent. 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 disagreed.
Forcing consciences might start with Christians but would it end there? Tatchell:
The judge concluded that service providers are required to facilitate any “lawful” message, even if they have a conscientious objection. This raises the question: should Muslim printers be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed? Or Jewish ones publish the words of a Holocaust denier? Or gay bakers accept orders for cakes with homophobic slurs? If the Ashers verdict stands it could, for example, encourage far-right extremists to demand that bakeries and other service providers facilitate the promotion of anti-migrant and anti-Muslim opinions. It would leave businesses unable to refuse to decorate cakes or print posters with bigoted messages.
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.
The day after Tatchell’s comment The Telegraph published an editorial stating that the Ashers conviction “must be overturned.”
While the row over a cake may sound like a joke, said the conservative paper, it “is a deadly serious matter concerning freedom of expression and the right of a person to hold an opinion or object to someone else’s.” The piece concluded:
“We are in the realms of thought crime here and even Peter Tatchell, the veteran gay rights campaigner who initially welcomed the prosecution, has changed his mind about it. He said the law against discrimination was meant to protect people with differing views, not to force upon others opinions to which they conscientiously object. Indeed so. The conviction must be overturned.”
The appeal has been adjourned to May 9th. Meanwhile, one has to congratulate Peter Tatchell on having the honesty to see and admit the injustice of the initial court decision and the importance of freedom of conscience.
* Adapted in part from a press release from the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe