Judge Declan Morgan and two other justices on the Court of Appeal in Belfast, Ireland, have struck down free speech for bakery owners there, ruling that they must put messages on their cakes even if the words violate their conscience and faith.
The stunning ruling came in the long-running case involving Ashers Baker, which was penalized by the local Equality Commission for Northern Ireland after the bakery owners said they could not promote homosexuality on a cake demanded by a customer because it violated their faith.
The politically correct decision means, according to Simon Calvert of Christian Institute, that it will seek a change in the law to protect freedom of conscience.
The deputy director for public affairs at the institute, which fought the battle on behalf of the bakery owners and freedom of speech, said, “Equality laws are there to protect people from discrimination, not to force people to associate themselves with a cause they oppose.
“But those same laws have become a weapon in the hands of those who want to oppress anyone who dissents from the politically correct norms of the moment. The law needs to change before more damage is done.”
Ashers General Manager Daniel McArthur said, “If equality law means people can be punished for politely refusing to support other people’s causes, then equality law needs to change.
“This ruling undermines democratic freedom. It undermines religious freedom. It undermines free speech.”
Morgan and the two other judges affirmed a decision from Isobel Brownlie, a county court judge, ruling against the bakery in favor of Gareth Lee, who demanded the Christians provide him with a cake stating, “Support Gay Marriage.”
According to a report from the Institute, while the judges recognized that the bakery did not refuse service because of Lee’s homosexuality, they said the refusal to create his message was “direct discrimination.”
The judges said the bakery may not provide a service “that only reflects their own political or religious message.”
McArthur said the fight was only about the message – the free speech of the bakery’s owners.
“We had served Mr. Lee before and would be happy to serve him again. The judges accepted that we did not know Mr. Lee was gay and that was not the reason we declined the order. We have always said it was never about the customer, it was about the message. The court accepted that. But now we are being told we have to promote the message even though it’s against our conscience.
“What we refused to do, was to be involved with promoting a political campaign to change marriage law.
“Because we’re Christians we support the current law. And we felt that making this cake would have made us responsible for its message.
“We wouldn’t decorate a cake with a pornographic picture or with swear words. We wouldn’t decorate a cake with a spiteful message about gay people. Because to do so would be to endorse and promote what was said,” he continued. “The court said the commission gave the impression it was not interested in assisting the faith community in issues like this. I think a lot of people will agree with that. That’s certainly how we have felt.”
He said, “We’ll have to take advice from our lawyers about whether there is a way to appeal this ruling. In the meantime, other businesses will have to take advice about whether they can refuse orders that conflict with their consciences. Or whether they too may be coerced into promoting other people’s views.”
Calvert raised the specter, too, of the ramifications of the ruling.
“What about the Muslim printer asked to produce cartoons of Mohammed? Or the Roman Catholic company asked to produce adverts with the slogan ‘Support abortion’? Any company whose owners believe that their creative output says something about them and their values has been put at risk by this interpretation of the law. We’ll work with the family and their lawyers to see what options for appeal remain open.”
The court was told by Attorney General for Northern Ireland John Larkin if the county court ruling against Ashers was right, the laws used against the bakery fall afoul of Northern Ireland’s constitutional law, which assures freedom of speech and religion.
He said, “I say very clearly, if it was a case where Mr. Lee had been refused some of Ashers. excellent chocolate eclairs because he was gay or perceived to be gay I would be standing on the other side of the court.
“But it’s not about that, it’s about expression and whether it’s lawful under Northern Ireland constitutional law for Ashers to be forced… to articulate or express or say a political message which is at variance with their political views and in particular their religious views.”
The attorney general decided to intervene, using his constitutional power to raise questions about the validity of the legislation used against the McArthurs, because of the constitutional issues in play.
He warned the European Convention on Human Rights was being violated by the local regulation that – because of the latest ruling – now forces people to advocate for homosexuality.
Testimony in the case at the lower court revealed the bakery owners didn’t know, or care, about any customer’s sexuality, but the requested message violated their Christian faith, and the European Convention on Human Rights gives them the right to refuse to put it on one of their cakes.
“Much as I wish to defend the gay community, I also want to defend freedom of conscience, expression and religion,” he wrote.
He said the lower court’s ruling that found Ashers breached Northern Ireland’s Equality Act and Fair Employment and Treatment Order, which “prohibit discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services on the respective grounds of sexual orientation and political opinion” perhaps wasn’t the best result.
“It pains me to say this, as a long-time supporter of the struggle for LGBT equality in Northern Ireland, where same-sex marriage and gay blood donors remain banned. The equality laws are intended to protect people against discrimination. A business providing a public service has a legal duty to do so without discrimination based on race, gender, faith and sexuality.
“However, the court erred by ruling that [Gareth] Lee was discriminated against because of his sexual orientation and political opinions. … His cake request was refused not because he was gay, but because of the message he asked for. There is no evidence that his sexuality was the reason Ashers declined his order,” he wrote.
He, too, warned of the consequences. “Should Muslim printers be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed? Or Jewish ones publish the words of a Holocaust denier? Or gay bakers accept orders for cakes with homophobic slurs? If the Ashers verdict stands it could, for example, encourage far-right extremists to demand that bakeries and other service providers facilitate the promotion of anti-migrant and anti-Muslim opinions. It would leave businesses unable to refuse to decorate cakes or print posters with bigoted messages.”