‘Gay cakes’ and a half baked Equality Commission

A bakery in Northern Ireland was asked to bake and supply a cake with an image of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street and the Slogan ‘Support Equal Marriage’. The order was placed by the campaign group ‘Queer Space’ whose logo also featured on the cake design.

The owners of the bakery declined the order and refunded the customer. They support the current law in Northern Ireland which defines marriage as between a man and a woman only. The bakery owners cite orthodox Christian beliefs on marriage, freedom of conscience and freedom of political opinion for their decision. They decided that to make a cake with this message would be tantamount to endorsing the campaign for same sex marriage. Now even the Prime Minister has weighed in.

The bakery owners received this letter from the Equality Commission. On the basis of one side of the story they are presumed to have ‘acted unlawfully’ and are given seven days to propose a remedy for their ‘unlawful discrimination’ failing which ‘proceedings will issue in the County Court without further notice to you.’ This seems heavy handed – a legal sounding letter, which presumes the bakers are guilty and gives a busy business owner seven days to respond. The banks have recently been criticised for sending threatening letters that are not dissimilar. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the case, the Commission should surely take a more neutral approach until they have established the basic facts.

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But then we turn to the merits of the case. There are none. No discrimination occurred. The owners had no idea of the sexuality of the person buying the cake – they did not even meet them. The Equality Commission itself could have ordered a cake saying ‘Support Equal Marriage’ and the bakers would have declined their trade. The issue here is the message on the cake. The particular message requested was simply not for sale. It wasn’t a product offered by this bakery to any customer gay or straight.

The distinction between discriminating against the message and the person is critical. They have discriminated against other messages – graphic images and rude phrases. Is it discrimination against women that they apparently refused to make a cake shaped like part of the male anatomy for a hen party? As former MP Ann Widdecombe said: “If the baker had refused merely to bake a cake because the customer was gay then that would indeed have been both unpleasant and illegal but the refusal was specific to the message requested for the cake.”

Sexual orientation is a red herring, completely irrelevant to this case. The real issue here is the policing of the personal conscience of the business owners. This case has all the hallmarks of a narrow ideologically driven campaign against genuine diversity.

The DUP have raised the issue of a conscience clause in this area. It is an interesting idea, but does not appear necessary in this case. The slogan on the cake was supporting a political campaign the bakers objected to – all the more reason not to force someone to make such a product. It seems certain that the law allows a printer to refuse to print materials for a political campaign. If that is correct, the Commission’s stance seems all the stranger.  The Commission may yet recognise, now that more of the facts are coming out, that it has jumped to the wrong conclusion based on limits facts and a misunderstanding of the law and that no discrimination has actually occurred. Otherwise this is going to make for an interesting and hopefully helpful precedent.

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36 thoughts on “‘Gay cakes’ and a half baked Equality Commission

  1. The case is an interesting one and we are left wondering whether the cake was ordered on purpose in order to make a test case or not. Either way I would want to make the following observations.

    1) Serving people is not necessarily the same as endorsing their world view. Self-employed people do this all of the time.

    2) There is a distinct difference between supporting issues and organisations that create overt harm to others and those supporting equality for consenting adults. The gay marriage issue is not the same as making a cake for a group that is either sexist or racist. To conflate these things is misleading.

    3) One wonders whether churches and leaders have lead congregation members towards taking a stand on issues that are not the most effective. If people are taught that a support for the freedom of gay people to have equality in marriage is the same as denying a usual Christian view of marriage then people will feel conflicted.

    4) I wonder what good might be done by the bakery producing the cake and building a relationship rather than making a stand against something done by consenting adults no matter how difficult they might find it.

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