Ashers Bakery in Belfast, Northern Ireland, has managed to divert attention away from the usual hoo-ha surrounding the marching season by refusing to make a cake adorned with pro-gay marriage slogans. The confectioners, named after one of the 12 tribes of Israel, who run their business in line with their Christian beliefs, have come under fire for declining business from Gareth Lee, a volunteer activist for the QueerSpace organisation. The cake was to be decorated with the words ‘Support Gay Marriage’ and an image of Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie, but Ashers returned Lee’s money and declined the business. The case has been taken up by the Equality Commission and could now end up in court, with the bakery being supported by the Christian Institute. The row raises some interesting issues.
Ashers did not refuse to sell Gareth a cake because he is gay. It declined an order to produce a cake which would, in effect, run counter to its owners’ beliefs. The argument against Ashers is that, while its owners are free to hold their old-fashioned views in private, when it comes to running their business they are not entitled to turn down work because they do not agree with the message their product will convey. The message is clear: prejudice, in any form, has no place in public life.
When I used to run a pub, I told a representative of Wells and Young’s Brewery that I would not stock its Bombardier bitter because the accompanying advertising campaign was anti-German. Was this also unacceptable? There are many more scenarios. Should a West Indian or Asian business be forced to make a product featuring British National Party (BNP) or English Defence League (EDL) slogans? Should a Jewish-run business be able to decline an order from a Holocaust denier? And so on. In short, where does freedom of conscience end and equality legislation begin?
If freedom of conscience, the right to follow one’s own beliefs in matters of religion and morality, means anything, people have to be able to act on their beliefs as they see fit. The Equality Commission is part of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It is an arm of the state. If it prosecutes Ashers it will, in effect, be saying that the bakers are not allowed to act according to their beliefs. It will be saying that there is an official set of sanctioned beliefs and then there are backward ones, beliefs that the state will prosecute you for holding. There’s a word for that kind of society: totalitarian.