Like most gay and equality campaigners, I initially condemned the Christian-run Ashers Bakery in Belfast over its refusal to produce a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan for a gay customer, Gareth Lee. I supported his legal claim against Ashers and the subsequent verdict – the bakery was found guilty of discrimination last year. Now, two days before the case goes to appeal, I have changed my mind. Much as I wish to defend the gay community, I also want to defend freedom of conscience, expression and religion.
The saga began in 2014 when the bakery said it was not willing to ice a cake with the words “support gay marriage” and the logo of the equality group Queer Space, claiming the message was contrary to its Christian beliefs. This struck many of us as anti-gay discrimination based on religious-inspired homophobic prejudice. Ashers believes that the relationships of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people are wrong and should not be eligible for the status of marriage. They translated these beliefs into action and declined to make the cake. Ashers would have decorated a cake with a message celebrating traditional heterosexual marriage and promoting a Christian organisation. Surely this was an example of clear-cut anti-gay discrimination?
Gareth Lee’s legal case against Ashers was backed by the Equality Commission of Northern Ireland. It argued that the bakery’s actions breached Northern Ireland’s Equality Act and Fair Employment and Treatment Order, which prohibit discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services on the respective grounds of sexual orientation and political opinion. Last May a Belfast court found Ashers guilty of discrimination on both grounds, ordering it to pay Lee £500 compensation.