Navigating discrimination? Piece of cake…

Right. Time to be up front about things. This is not a piece about the Great British Bake Off and it’s all-white finalist line-up, and how Benjamina – possibly the most capable baker there – found herself eliminated the other week and deprived us all of the pleasure of watching her onscreen minor flirtation with Selasi.

There will be no double entendres, no Mel, no Sue, and no smut.

This is, however, about baking. And equality. And confusion. It’s about the risk that we are having the life and colour sucked from us in a politically correct repressive void which cannot handle any shade of grey where people hold differing views.

This week, a Belfast-based bakery, Ashers, lost an appeal after they were found to have discriminated against gay activist, Gareth Lee, in 2014 by refusing to make a cake bearing a pro-gay marriage slogan. Ashers argued that it was inconsistent with their deeply-held Christian religious beliefs, and so had offered to refund Mr Lee immediately after he placed his order. However, the court upheld the initial verdict that their action breached equality legislation.

This particular case has gripped my attention, initially as the Ashers probably would take a roughly similar viewpoint to me – I also have fairly strongly held religious beliefs, which are relatively normal in people of my particular flavour of Christian background. I’d hope I’m a tolerant kind of guy, too, and I wouldn’t want to be backed into a corner where I was forced to promote something I didn’t really agree with. I was interested in the outcome of the case.

The Ashers case was all about how free we are to express those beliefs with integrity, whilst at the same time crossing over into the boundary of how we interact with those who hold different views (in this case, through baking a cake).

The bakery argued that they had served Mr Lee before, and didn’t discriminate against him because he was gay, but rather they disagree with the message he had requested. The prosecution, for the Northern Ireland Equality Commission, argued that the bakers hadn’t been forced to do anything against their beliefs, citing examples of many businesses or media companies who might print or issues messages that they did not agree with. I found it pretty difficult to argue with this sort of logic – it seems reasonable.

It seems even more reasonable in other, more serious, scenarios where a health professional might choose to deny a service to someone because of a disagreement over their beliefs. For me, this is a far more worrying implication… we started with a cake, but what happens if the Ashers worked in the NHS, Education or Police? What happens if they worked in the Home Office or Border Control and disagreed with immigration policy, and so chose to exercise a measure of their beliefs?

The potential risks and repercussions are alarming, principally for those areas and walks of life where legislation is not clear and unequivocal, governing every scenario tightly.

And yet, when Peter Tatchell, the veteran gay rights activist, waded into the case to support the Ashers, you have to sit up and pay attention. Tatchell argued that the case set a dangerous precedent for freedom of expression and the potential for social ill it could cause, specifically around being able to discriminate freely against ideas. 

What happens in the case of the gay bakers who are asked to make a cake saying – and this is not my view – that, ‘God hates fags’ or other homophobic slogans? Or Muslim printers who are asked to print cartoons mocking the Prophet? What happens to the registrars, faith schools and religious adoption agencies who do sterling work finding loving stable homes for children who desperately need someone to take care of them when the activists who disagree with them actively ‘go after’ them?

A small victory for equality, yes. Arguably a bigger loss for everyone else, or in some cases a danger to society. The outward expressions of someone’s beliefs – frequently being expressed in a positive and charitable way – could be curtailed. Tatchell’s arguement, which is also persuasive, is that society should be free to discriminate against the ideas it disagrees with.

Whilst the overall situation has a little more complexity in Northern Ireland, given the proposed ‘conscience clause’ being debated, it strikes me that the best way to celebrate our differences is to do just that, but not to force them on others through equality legislation at all times. Some of us need to appreciate that others hold different views to us. And other people need to not take offence when someone expresses that different view.

In the cases where refusal or discrimination arises and it is for a vital need or important service, it feels right to bring it to the judiciary to have the case considered if there is no legislation. When it’s for not printing a message on a cake? No. Mr Lee could have found another bakery, or, with a little imagination, expressed his message in some other way – perhaps a plain Victoria sponge with a Bert & Ernie figure purchase from Amazon. Why a cake? And even if it had to be, Ashers probably isn’t the only baker in Belfast.

But there we have it.

The right verdict in the eyes of the law was reached, and the Northern Ireland Equality Commission won. However, common sense and freedom of expression lost. And that is what I find most disheartening.

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