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Court Decision: Lee v Ashers Baking Co Ltd

The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland welcomes the judgement given in Belfast in the case of Lee v Gareth LeeAshers Baking Co Ltd. This case raised issues of public importance regarding the extent to which suppliers of goods and services can refuse service on grounds of sexual orientation, religious belief and political opinion.

The Court’s decision confirms the legal responsibilities on all service providers not to discriminate against their customers on these grounds.


The Commission’s Advisory Services Team can provide advice to employers and service providers. For further information Tel: 028 90500600 or email edenquiries@equalityni.org

 

Ashers Bakery Owners to Appeal

Editorial:  The McArthur family, who having taken a contract decided that they couldn’t fulfil it due to their Christian beliefs, and then who were taken to court by the Equality Commission NI and had judgement made against them, is to appeal the judgement.

This is a perfectly natural move, and it is one that must be expected.  The fees are not exorbitant (see Civil Appeals Office Fees from 4 April 2011) but the time for a case to heard can be lengthy, currently some cases are in excess of 9 months.

I do honestly believe that both of the two participants in this case would like to get on with their lives, but unfortunately the case has now got a political angle; in particular with some Northern Irish MLA’s and MP’s taking very right of centre positions against the LGBT community.  Allied to which some church groups, in particular the Christian Institute which is funding the McArthur’s case for them.

I will also stress to everyone that the decision to go to the Appeal Courts at this time is controlled by the laws governing when you can submit your Notice to Appeal, and that it has ‘nothing’ to do with the ‘Yes’ vote on marriage equality which has just occurred in the Republic of Ireland.

The two are not linked in any way that I can see.

I am putting links to various news articles here for you to look at and for you to make your own judgement:

Bakery owners Daniel McArthur and his wife Amy arrive at court for the verdict. Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 19th May 2015 Picture by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye

Bakery owners Daniel McArthur and his wife Amy arrive at court for the verdict. Press Eye – Belfast – Northern Ireland – 19th May 2015 Picture by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye

Padraig Reidy: The “gay cake” case bedevils Northern Ireland

Editorial:  We have already reported that this case is currently in court and awaiting judgement; however the reason why I have picked this article up is because members of the Free Presbyterian Church decided to protest outside  Windsor Park before the Finland in a European Championship qualifier which was to be played for the first time on a Sunday.  

As I have stated before, I believe that everyone has a right to hold a ‘peaceful’ protest, however what is disheartening is when you also read that Conservative faith leaders have made religious liberty a rallying cry as gay marriage has spread throughout the states.  

It would appear that religious freedom must be granted no matter whose freedom gets trampled in the meantime.

Please let us know your thoughts?

Gay Cake Controversy

Religious right wants to constrict your freedom

 

 

 

By Padraig Reidy / 2 April, 2015

QueerSpace Belfast / Facebook

Last Sunday, as Northern Ireland’s footballers prepared to play Finland in a European Championship qualifier, protesters gathered outside Windsor Park, the team’s Belfast home.

The assembled were members of the Free Presbyterian Church. They were angered by the fact that Northern Ireland were playing on a Sunday  – the Sabbath  – for the first time ever.

Reverend Raymond Robinson told the Press Association: “Our opposition is to the breaking of observance of the Lord’s day.

“We believe in the Sabbath being kept holy. It seems more and more that the football agenda is being driven by the television companies and not what God says, or what public opinion is.”

Commentator Newton Emerson was, like many, blase about the protest, tweeting “I think these people are harmless enough now to just count towards our wonderful diversity.”

Be that as it may, Christian fundamentalism still plays a huge role in public life in Northern Ireland. While the old demands for Biblical propriety may seem archaic, a new struggle has emerged over what many religious people in the country see as threats to their religious freedom and way of life. And a cake has become the latest flashpoint.

Asher’s bakery is a business run by a family known for its Christian beliefs. It is named after one of the Biblical Twelve Tribes of Israel. Last summer, the bakery was asked to provide a cake by Gareth Lee, a volunteer for LGBT group QueerSpace.

Lee had requested a cake decorated with a picture of Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie and the slogan “Support Gay Marriage”.

The bakery initially accepted the order, before then informing Lee that it could not fulfil the deal. The case went to Northern Ireland’s Equality Commission, and, between the jigs and reels, is now in the hands of district judge Isobel Brownie, who will rule on Monday whether the Christian bakers engaged in unlawful discrimination by not delivering the pro-same sex marriage cake.

Meanwhile, the “gay cake” case has raised the spectre of a “conscience clause” in equality legislation in Northern Ireland.

The whole situation is, quite frankly, pitiful. One can preach it, validly, both ways: fundamentalist bigots out of touch with the modern world, and inflicting their bigotry on others, or God-fearing, humble folk sticking by their beliefs in the face of an onslaught they didn’t invite.

I can’t help feel sympathetic towards the McArthurs, the family who own the bakery. Karen McArthur told the court that she had initially accepted the order to avoid embarrassment. Colin McArthur said “On that day I didn’t make a clinical decision. I was examining my heart. I was wrestling it over in my heart and in my mind.” He was, apparently, “deeply troubled”. “We discussed how we could stand before God and bake a cake like this promoting a case like this…”

On the other hand, Gareth Lee said he was left feeling like a lesser person after he was told his order would not be fulfilled.

This shouldn’t be down to who was more upset or offended, but then, on what criteria can we judge it? I don’t think it’s necessarily true to say that Lee is entitled to have any message he wants put on any cake by any person. The prosecution, correctly, pointed out that the message was rejected because of the word “gay”. The defence lawyers suggested that a ruling against the McArthurs could lead to a situation where devout Muslims were legally obliged to decorate cakes with images of Muhammad. While “you wouldn’t say that about the Muslims” is a tedious argument, and one deployed increasingly often by Christians, it’s not, in this case, an entirely unreasonable position.

Hardline Christians see homosexuality as a (wrong) choice people make, or a psychological disorder. I recall watching the Reverend Willie McRea, an MP, once, being asked what support he would offer to a constituent who was a victim of homophobia. McRea replied that he would advise the young man not go down that route: basically, the best way to prevent homophobia is to stop being gay.

Meanwhile, Iris Robinson, wife of Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson, firmly believes that one can be counselled away from homosexuality.

These people are odd, certainly, but they are not fringe characters who can be dismissed as irrelevant to mainstream society in Northern Ireland.

And even if these views were not mainstream, that would not make the fundamentals of the case any different. But it does seem as if the Equality Commission is trying to drag a segment of Northern Irish society kicking and screaming into the secular world.

So who’s right? Who should win? Reader, I am about to break the columnist’s solemn covenant and admit: I don’t fully know. This is not as clear cut a case of discrimination as, say, barring a gay couple from a Bed and Breakfast: if the McArthurs had simply refused to sell a cake to Lee, that would be clear cut. But the cake was loaded, so to speak. Should this tricky case lead to a “conscience clause” in equality legislation, then one can imagine legitimisation of genuinely discriminatory practices.

At the same time, the McArthurs, are wrong, and one’s initial inclination is to side with the gay rights activist against the religious fundamentalists. But that’s the problem with defending freedom of conscience, (and its expression in freedom of speech). Everyone’s conscience is different.

Northern Ireland beat Finland 2-1, by the way. God’s clearly not very troubled by Sunday football.

This column was posted at indexoncensorship.org on April 2, 2015

 

Further reading:

Peter Robinson hits out at cost of Ashers Bakery court case

 

As with all reporting, a balance must be sought between both sides of a dispute.  When a legal case was not sought or indeed envisaged by the person who placed the ordr for the cake, nor I am certain were Asher’s wishing to be in the limelight for an equality case, the fact is that they both are now tangent to what is happening.  The Equality Commission, established in 1998, has duties which derive from a number of statutes which have been enacted over the last decades, providing protection against discrimination on the grounds of age, disability, race, religion and political opinion, sex and sexual orientation. They also have responsibilities arising from the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in respect of the statutory equality and good relations duties which apply to public authorities. However, importantly, they are sponsoring Department is the Office of the First and deputy First Minister which carries responsibilities for equality policy and legislation in the Northern Ireland Executive.
With these facts in mind, it is obvious that the Equality Commission is fulfilling its mission within the statues.  What is not so obvious is why the Office of the First Minister in the person of Rt Hon Peter D Robinson MLA would seem to be at odds with the body that it provides funding for.  However, politics does make strange bedfellows, as can be seen in the Belfast Telegraph report below.
But before you make your mind up on this case, please remember that all legal cases have an impact on our future; and that if we allow politicians to ram down our throats that we are second class citizens for any reason, what next in our rights will be eroded away?
I will also note that most of the newspapers have carefully put a photograph of the Asher family to the front, with the inference being that here is the ‘perfect, normal’ family which the DUP and its supporters rave about!
Pacemaker Press 6/11/2014<br /><br /><br /><br />
Daniel  and Amy McArthur with their Baby Girl Elia,  Daniel from Ashers Baking Company refused to bake a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan.  The Equality Commission are now going  to take  civil action against a Christian-owned bakery firm.<br /><br /><br /><br />
Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Pacemaker Press 6/11/2014 Daniel and Amy McArthur with their Baby Girl Elia, Daniel from Ashers Baking Company refused to bake a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan. The Equality Commission are now going to take civil action against a Christian-owned bakery firm. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

First Minister Peter Robinson has accused the Equality Commission of spending up to £33,000 to seek court damages worth £500 from a Christian-owned bakery.

The commission has brought a civil case against Ashers Baking Company after it refused to bake a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan. The two-day hearing is due in the High Court later this week.

The DUP leader said: “When you consider that they have set aside the potential of spending £33,000 on this court case where they are seeking damages of £500 against Ashers, there is a better use that could be put to that money, particularly in the tight fiscal situation the Executive faces.” Ashers is facing the action after it refused to supply a pro-gay marriage cake on grounds of the owners’ religious views.

A new poll released yesterday found that more than 70% of people believe it is wrong for a Christian bakery to be taken to court over its refusal to make a cake supporting gay marriage. As the case approaches, the debate has intensifed between Christian-based groups, including church leaders, and pro-gay groups.

 A human rights academic has claimed that businesses owned by Christians have a legal way of providing services while not approving of gay relationships.

Professor Steven Greer has suggested that busin esses can print a disclaimer on invoices, websites, and other business documents, to say that compliance with statutory requirements does not constitute approval of the activities in question. In a commentary piece, the Bristol University professor argues that the courts need to strike a balance between competing rights and interests.

Mr Greer believes that a ‘conscience clause’ bill proposed to the Assembly by the DUP’s Paul Givan has little chance of ever being introduced as it would be repealed by Westminster and legally challenged in Strasbourg.

He suggests: “Those providing goods and services in Northern Ireland who do not approve of gay relationships, could and should simply issue a disclaimer on their invoices, websites, and other business documents to the effect that compliance with relevant statutory requirements does not necessarily constitute approval of the activities in question.”

Churches across Northern Ireland have been encouraged by the Christian Institute to highlight a support meeting to their members tonight at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall while pro-gay rights rallies have been held in various towns.

‘How simple disclaimer could be solution to the rights versus conscience deadlock’

There could be a way round the difficulties thrown up by the Ashers case, writes Prof Steven Greer:

This Thursday, the District Judges Court in Belfast will begin hearing a case, brought by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland on behalf of gay activist Mr Gareth Lee, against Ashers Baking Company for alleged breach of statutory duty not to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of goods or services.

On the basis of strongly held Christian beliefs, the bakery declined an order from Mr Lee for a cake decorated with Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie in a friendly but not intimate embrace, the logo of the campaign group ‘QueerSpace’, and the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’.

There seems little doubt that Ashers will lose the litigation, and that Mr Lee will be modestly compensated, because the legislation in question, the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006, does not provide an exemption on any ground, including religious faith.

Possibly anticipating this outcome, DUP Assembly member, Paul Givan, is seeking to provide one by way of a Private Members Bill supported by his party and the Catholic Church amongst others. Mr Givan’s amendment would not legalise all refusals to supply goods and services to gays in Northern Ireland.

It would, instead, provide a ‘conscience clause’ permitting those with strongly held religious views to avoid ‘endorsing, promoting or facilitating behaviour or beliefs’ which conflict with these convictions. Some have claimed that the current position in Northern Ireland is ‘Christianophobic’ — intolerant of and discriminatory towards Christians. And, according to First Minister Peter Robinson, the Equality Commission’s case amounts simply to ‘bullying’.

For these and others, the proposed amendment would, merely provide an appropriate, measured solution to a genuine conflict between the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, on the one hand, and the right not to be discriminated against due to sexual preference on the other. By contrast, others regard it as an attempt to legalise homophobia.

The right not to be discriminated against on the basis of sexual preference is clear in international human rights law with, for example, the decriminalization of private, consensual, adult, gay sex mandatory throughout the 47-member Council of Europe, no matter how strong national or regional opposition. And for good reason.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people have long suffered, not just discrimination, but often savage mistreatment merely for claiming identities or engaging in private, consensual, adult sexual activities, of which others disapprove. The scope of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is, however, less clear.

Since it unquestionably includes the right not to be compelled to believe against conscience, religious conservatives are well within their rights to regard gay sex as inherently wrong because God forbids it.

But the permissibility of the expression of religious belief, in commercial and other spheres, hinges fundamentally upon its consequences, including and especially how others are affected.

Were Mr Givan’s amendment to be passed, same-sex couples in Northern Ireland could, for example, be lawfully denied a table at a restaurant, a room in a hotel, or a mortgage, on the grounds that this would otherwise endorse or facilitate same-sex unions.

But, apart from a sense of discomfort, distaste or outrage, it is not at all clear what loss or damage is suffered by those who feel that being required to provide gays with customised goods and services compels them to act contrary to their core religious beliefs.

Such a ‘loss’, if a loss it is at all, pales into insignificance compared with the tangible and potentially substantial damage which could be sustained by gay couples in such circumstances.

There is, in any case, a simpler solution to these difficulties. Instead of an exemption from the 2006 regulations, those providing goods and services in Northern Ireland who do not approve of gay relationships, could and should simply issue a disclaimer on their invoices, websites, and other business documents to the effect that compliance with relevant statutory requirements does not necessarily constitute approval of the activities in question.

Steven Greer was born and raised in Belfast and is currently Professor of Human Rights at the University of Bristol Law School