The Telegraph 19 May 2015
Is today’s ruling in Belfast a triumph for equality or a blow to freedom of conscience? Ideally, this shouldn’t be a matter of winners and losers. But the ruling verdict against Ashers bakery, which refused to decorate a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan, will feed the feeling many in Northern Ireland and beyond harbour: that the state apparatus is actively at odds with religious faith.
In some senses, of course, this is true. There are some supposed religious practices, such as the torture of children under the banner of exorcism, that the state should never permit.
But the Ashers case is nowhere near as clear-cut.
To recap. Gay rights activist Gareth Lee went to Ashers, a Christian-run bakery, asking for a cake to be decorated with a picture of Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie and a slogan in support of marriage equality. Ashers initially took the job, but then, after an apparent tussle with his conscience, the bakery manager Daniel McArthur decided he could not, in good faith, carry out the commissioned work.
Lee, with the support of the Northern Ireland Equality Commission, brought a case against Ashers, saying he had been discriminated against on grounds of his sexuality. This morning, the court ruled that this was exactly what had happened.
I have to admit I was surprised by the verdict. For me, the case was not simply one of straightforward homophobia. Refusing to write a message fundamentally at odds with one’s beliefs is different from, say, refusing a couple a bed in a B&B: it is to involve people in an argument rather than simply request that they act as disinterested providers. If Ashers had simply refused to sell any cake at all to Mr Lee or any other LGBT person, then that would be an obvious act of discrimination.