MUSLIM printers could be forced to produce cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed if the case against an Irish bakery which refused to make a Sesame Street gay marriage cake is upheld, a prominent human rights barrister in the UK has claimed.
Aidan O’Neill QC said a discrimination case against Ashers Baking Company – a Christian which cancelled an order to make a cake featuring the characters Bert and Ernie arm in arm under the slogan ‘support gay marriage’ – could undermine freedom of conscience.
Mr O’Neill was commissioned by the Christian Institute, which is supporting the bakery’s legal defence, to provide a legal opinion on the implications of the case, which is due to come before a court in Belfast later this month.
The bakery is based in Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland.
He said the arguments upon which the legal action is based could also justify forcing a T-shirt company with a lesbian owner to print tops denouncing same-sex marriage as an “abomination” or an atheist web designer to build a website claiming the world was made by God in six days.
The row over the Bert and Ernie cake has divided opinion sharply in Northern Ireland, where the bakery is based, and led to attempts to introduce a so-called “conscience clause” into law in the province.
The proposal, put forward by members of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), would give businesses an exclusion from discrimination law enabling them to refuse to provide services if they go against their religious convictions.
Supporters claim it is needed to protect freedom of belief but opponents say it would be nothing more than legalised discrimination against gay people.
The row first arose in May of last year when Ashers cancelled a £36.50 order for the novelty cake from Gareth Lee, an LGBT rights activist.
Daniel McArthur, general manager of the firm, said it would amount to endorsing the campaign for the introduction of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland – the only part of the UK where it is not yet legal – and go against his traditionalist Christian beliefs.
But the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, a Government-backed body, wrote to the firm to say the refusal amounted to discrimination against Mr Lee, who wanted the cake for an event to mark International Day Against Homophobia.
Mr Lee, supported by the Commission, is seeking a small amount of compensation and a declaration that his treatment amounted to discrimination, based on equality regulations and employment law.
But Mr O’Neill argued that the Commission’s case ignores human rights protections and said the bakery’s case was based on the same principles as Sir Thomas More’s refusal recognise Henry VIII to be the Supreme Head of the Church in England.
“Their refusal to endorse this opinion – to protect their negative freedom of expression – has resulted in the State, in the form of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, funding court action against them which seeks to stigmatise as unlawful and render unactionable the defendants’ religious beliefs and political opinions,” he wrote.
He added: “If the approach of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland … were correctly based in law (which I do not consider it to be) then on the basis that the law does not protect the fundamental right, within the commercial context of supplying services, to hold opinions nor guarantee any negative freedom of expression, there would be no defence to similar actions being taken against individuals or companies supplying services in any of the following scenarios which have been presented to me.”
He listed several scenarios including “a Muslim printer refusing a contract requiring the printing of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed”.
Colin Hart, director of the Christian Institute, said: “The strength and clarity of the advice from Mr O’Neill, who has a national reputation for his human rights expertise, should set off the alarm bells in this Government quango.
“It spells out the very real dangers and far-reaching implications for freedom of speech.
“But the equality watchdog seems determined to force people to use their creative skills to promote a political cause they fundamentally disagree with.
“This family run bakers serve gay customers all the time but they didn’t want to promote gay marriage.”