Sunday, October 30, 2016

Ashers case shows that equality law needs to change

So, the Belfast-based Christian bakers who refused to make a cake with the slogan ‘support gay marriage’ have lost an appeal against an earlier court ruling that they had breached equality legislation in so doing.

Ashers – which is run by the McArthur family – is a family firm and the owners are devout Christians who believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. 

The court found that they had not discriminated against the gay activist who ordered the cake on the grounds of his sexual orientation since they did not know that he was gay. 

Nevertheless, they have found themselves on the wrong side of the law for refusing to endorse a political message that they could not – in conscience – support.

This sets a dangerous precedent.

Let’s be clear: the Church is emphatic on the sinfulness of unjust discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation. The Catechism makes it clear that gay people “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity”.

“Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided,” the catechism states.

Beliefs

If the bakers, for example, refused to serve gay people – they would deserve to be punished by the law. 

But this is not what happened. 

The firm simply refused to supply a cake with a message that ran contrary to their beliefs. 

The law now opens a chasm that I am sure no-one wants to cross. 

While extreme, the logical extension of the judgement is that a family member of someone who perished in the Holocaust now has no defence before the law for refusing to print t-shirts for a neo-Nazi organisation claiming that the extermination of six million Jews in Nazi death camps is a myth.

While the North’s Equality Commission has welcomed the punishment of the McArthur family for standing by their principles, they have won support from some unlikely quarters. 

For one, Peter Tatchell – the prominent gay activist and noted critic of the Catholic Church – condemned the appeal court decision. 

“Discrimination against LGBT people is wrong and is rightly unlawful. But in a democratic society, people should be able to discriminate against ideas they disagree with,” he wrote.

The Guardian newspaper opined that the case “involved an attempt to compel someone to express – even in sugar paste – an opinion they rejected with all their hearts.

“That’s wrong even when the opinion is right,” the Guardian leader writer wrote.

Clearly, the Court of Appeal in Belfast found that Ashers did indeed break the law as it currently stands.

Reasons

There are good reasons why the North is sensitive to the need for people to be treated with dignity. 

Equality legislation was fashioned after decades of discrimination against the minority Catholic community. 

It’s ironic indeed, that this same legislation is now being used to punish Daniel McArthur and his family for upholding their conscientious rights.

If equality legislation means people can be punished for politely refusing to support other people’s causes, then equality law needs to change.

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