BELFAST, Northern Ireland (BP) — A Northern Ireland appeals court has upheld the conviction of a Christian-run bakery accused of discrimination for refusing to bake a cake supporting gay marriage.
A ruling by a three-judge appeals panel has upheld a 2015 decision by a lower court finding Ashers Baking Company guilty of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.
In 2014, the bakery declined a customer’s request for a cake picturing Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie and the slogan “Support Gay Marriage.” The customer, backed by Northern Ireland’s Equality Commission, sued the bakery, a Belfast-based business with nine storefronts owned and run by the McArthur family. A county judge ruled against Ashers and fined the family £500 ($615). The McArthurs’ appeal was turned down Oct. 24.
While the business considers whether it will appeal again, this time to the U.K. Supreme Court, support is coming from unexpected quarters. In the wake of the decision, two major U.K. newspapers published editorials condemning the ruling and backing the bakery, both penned by openly gay men.
“Discrimination against people should be illegal but not discrimination against ideas and opinions,” LGBT rights activist Peter Tatchell wrote in The Independent.
“This judgment opens a can of worms,” Tatchell lamented. “It means that a Muslim printer could be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed and a Jewish printer could be required to publish a book that propagates Holocaust denial. … What the court has decided sets a dangerous, authoritarian precedent that is open to serious abuse.”
Commentator Neil Midgley, writing in The Telegraph, said he didn’t want any business to discriminate against gay people.
“I wish the McArthurs would abandon their silly religious views and bake cakes for everyone,” Midgley wrote. “But freedom of religion must surely be respected alongside freedom of sexuality and, as a gay man, I vehemently support the Christian bakers’ right not to bake pro-gay cakes.”
The appeals panel disagreed.
Although the judges accepted the fact that Ashers previously served the customer, gay rights activist Gareth Lee, and that its employees did not know he was gay when they refused his order, the judges said Lee still received less favorable treatment based on his sexual orientation.
The McArthurs say it is simply not true.
“We have always said it: It was never about the customer, it was about the message,” Daniel McArthur, managing director of the bakery, said outside the courthouse. “But now we’re being told that we have to promote the message, even if it’s against our conscience.”
McArthur also noted the message stands opposed to current law in Northern Ireland, where gay marriage is still illegal.
The ruling undermines democratic freedom, religious freedom and free speech, McArthur said, noting, “If equality law means people can be punished for politely refusing to support other people’s causes, then equality law needs to change.” he said.
But, according to Northern Ireland’s lord chief justice, Sir Declan Morgan, reading from the opinion in court, “The fact that a baker provides a cake for a particular team or portrays witches on a Halloween cake does not indicate any support for either.”