The Equality Commission has decided to take Ashers Baking Company to court because it refused to make what has become known as ‘the gay cake’. The Christian run bakery declined to make a cake supporting gay marriage because it was against the directors’ religious beliefs.
The decision to take the family business to court is very worrying. Having taken further legal advice the Commission now claims Ashers are guilty of religious and political discrimination as well as the original claim on the grounds of sexual orientation. This should concern everyone, not just Christians – it is a challenge to the very fabric of Northern Ireland society. We are talking about the loss of religious and political freedom. This is an attempt to privatise religion and exclude it from the public square. The Commission is deciding which political and religious views are acceptable and which are not.
Ashers have made clear that they did not know the sexual orientation of the person ordering the cake. Even if the Equality Commission itself had ordered the cake they would have declined to make it. Ashers were discriminating against an idea not a person. The law allows the first, while rightly preventing the second.
The Commission now appears to be arguing that views on gay marriage may be grounds for political discrimination. This is strange as the Commission itself supports gay marriage presumably making it a political organisation and no longer neutral on this issue. Many will see this as the Commission pursuing its own political agenda against a small family business.
Finally, it is reported that the Commission is accusing Ashers of religious discrimination as their decision was motivated by their faith. There does not appear to be any suggestion they knew the religion of the person ordering the cake or discriminated on that basis. Instead, the family who run the firm are being accused of discrimination because their stance was motivated by their faith. This is a clear attempt to remove faith from the workplace, and more broadly the public square. Surely we are all motivated by our faith or our beliefs?
I hope that all political parties here in NI and throughout the UK see this case for what it has now become – a fundamental attack on political and religious freedom. Regardless of one’s views on gay marriage, this case should unite all of us who believe in civil and religious liberty.
I believe in equality, but it must be held in tension with rights and responsibilities and in the context of the much richer notion of justice. When equality becomes the sole lens through which a situation is viewed, distortions like the Asher case can occur. The Executive should consider merging the Equality Commission with the Human Rights Commission as in England and Wales. This would ensure better balance and have the benefit of saving the public purse. For now, I hope and pray the courts will protect the civil and religious freedoms we all value so much.