Cake appeal

One bakery has become the unlikely flashpoint in Northern Ireland’s fight for gay rights

LGBT group in Northern Ireland can have their cake (and eat it, too)

Cake decoration seems like an odd thing to divide a society, but it’s causing a major rift in Northern Ireland.

On Tuesday the Belfast Court of Appeal ruled that the family-owned Ashers bakery discriminated against Gareth Lee, a member of the city’s QueerSpace collective, by refusing to honor his order for a cake decorated with a picture of “Sesame Street” characters Bert and Ernie and a slogan in support of equal marriage.

The case had dragged on for nearly two years. In May 2014, Lee went to Ashers and ordered the cake. Karen McArthur, a member of the family that owns the bakery, initially took the order, but after talking with her husband, she decided not to fulfill the order, telling Lee that Ashers is a “Christian business.”

Lee took the case to court that November and won, with the court saying that decorating a cake with a slogan was not tantamount to promoting the message, and that the bakers must have known Lee was gay, and hence had discriminated against him. The case has rattled on since, with the Christian Institute backing the McArthurs and many secular and gay rights activists supporting Lee and QueerSpace.

But this week’s judgment looks final, ruling that refusal to decorate a cake with a pro–gay marriage slogan is discriminatory.

“The benefit from the message or slogan on the cake could only accrue to gay or bisexual people. The appellants would not have objected to a cake carrying the message “Support Heterosexual Marriage” or indeed “Support Marriage,” the court’s decision read. “We accept that it was the use of the word “Gay” in the context of the message which prevented the order from being fulfilled… Accordingly this was direct discrimination.”

Tehmina Kazi, a human rights activist in the Republic of Ireland, and former executive director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, agrees. She told VICE News: “A profit-making entity cannot turn away business on grounds of conscience UNLESS the message being promoted is:

  1. Unlawful.
  2. Violates the company’s terms and conditions (which themselves have to be compatible with other laws).”

Rachael Jolley from Index on Censorship took a different perspective. “Free speech includes both the right to speak — but also, crucially, the right not to speak — or be forced to speak in support of views or opinions with which you disagree,” she told VICE News.  

Meanwhile, the Christian Institute is using the judgment to reiterate its calls for a “conscience clause” in Northern Irish equality legislation, which could open the way for, say, Christian fundamentalist bed-and-breakfast owners to refuse rooms to gay couples.

The religious divide in Northern Ireland is notably stark, yet this ruling could, ironically, bring hard-line Protestants and Catholics together over their shared interest in preventing the passage of a same-sex marriage law.

Padraig Reidy is editor of LittleAtoms.com.

Cover: ASSOCIATED PRESS

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