News Colette Browne

Thursday 21 August 2014

Religious beliefs can't be used as an excuse for discrimination

Published 09/07/2014 | 02:30

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Ashers: may face legal action. Photo: Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye
Ashers: may face legal action. Photo: Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

Is a Christian bakery that refused to make a gay marriage wedding cake making a stand for religious freedom or breaching equality laws?

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When it comes to contentious cakes, one depicting 'Sesame Street' favourites Bert and Ernie doesn't immediately appear particularly controversial.

However, it was the slogan accompanying the embracing puppets, 'support gay marriage', that prompted Ashers Baking Co, based in Newtownabbey, to cancel an order placed by Queerspace, an LGBT organisation.

"We are Christians and our Christianity reaches to every point of our lives, whether that's at home or in the day-to-day running of the business.

"We thought that this order was at odds with our beliefs, certainly was in contradiction with what the Bible teaches," said general manager Daniel McArthur.

Mr McArthur was reacting to news that the company now faces the prospect of prosecution by Northern Ireland's Equality Commission.

Six weeks after the company cancelled the order, it received a letter from the Equality Commission stating it had discriminated against a customer on the grounds of sexual orientation.

It was also warned that legal action could be pursued against it under the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations, which prohibits discrimination in the provision of goods, services and facilities on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Predictably, religious groups, like the Christian Institute, are up in arms, saying "imbalanced equality laws are making it increasingly hard for people, especially Christians".

Apparently, "the forces of political correctness" are out to get Christians and compel them "to go against their deeply held beliefs".

If, for a moment, we give the Christian Institute the benefit of the doubt, and agree to exempt businesses from complying with equality legislation on the basis of religious belief, where would we draw the line?

Would a bakery be within its rights to refuse to bake a cake marking the end of a divorce battle? Or would we feel comfortable with a baker refusing to serve a single mother? What would the Christian Institute feel about a Muslim baker who refused to serve a female customer who did not cover her hair with a veil?

If we recoil against these kinds of obviously discriminatory behaviour, then why is it acceptable for a baker to refuse to bake a cake for a gay customer? Stating that the message on the cake, championing same-sex marriage, is contrary to their religious beliefs is immaterial. No one thinks that a baker endorses every message that she or he is asked to pipe on to a cake.

That is nonsense.

What the bakery is doing, in preparing the cake, is merely providing a service to a customer.

And, under the law, they are required to treat all customers equally – because, while everyone is entitled to their religious beliefs, this does not give them the right to discriminate against customers on the basis of those beliefs.

This may not please everyone, but it's the law.

The issue was comprehensively settled in the UK last year when the Christian owners of a guesthouse, who refused to allow a gay couple to stay overnight, took their battle for religious freedom all the way to the Supreme Court.

The owners, Peter and Hazelmary Bull, said they regarded any sex outside of marriage as a sin and "believed in the importance of marriage as the union of one man and one woman".

The Supreme Court said, in effect, it didn't care what their personal views were – if they were running a business, they could not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

Quite apart from equality laws, good business practice would suggest that Ashers Baking Co should reconsider its policy.

Following the Bulls' extensive legal battle, and the saturation media coverage it received, customers, both gay and straight, boycotted the premises en masse, forcing them to sell up – a portentous outcome Ashers Bakers Co should consider.

The bakery may feel a bit like the little Dutch boy, sticking its finger in the dam to hold back the surging tide of marriage equality, but, in truth, its small act of protest is a futile gesture.

The number of heterosexual marriages in this country is now at its lowest level since 1998. Consequently, the only growth industry in the wedding market appears to be in civil partnerships, which many view as a precursor to the inevitable introduction of gay marriage, with a referendum on that issue scheduled for next year. Any canny retailer in a declining market, instead of antagonising a large cohort of potential new customers, would instead be pandering to their needs, which includes wedding cakes.

Ashers Bakers Co may yet have to contend with a legal action from the Equality Commission, but much more damaging, in the long run, could be the decision of their customers to take their pink pounds elsewhere.

Colette Browne

Irish Independent

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