Irish bakers' bias case delayed after attorney general steps in
by Samantha Gobba
Posted 2/05/16, 09:05 am
The Christian bakers in Northern Ireland waiting to hear a verdict in their sexual orientation discrimination case will have to wait a little longer.
Daniel and Amy McArthur, who run Ashers Baking Company in Belfast, Ireland, refused in 2014 to bake a cake bearing the slogan, “Support Gay Marriage” for gay rights activist Gareth Lee. A judge fined the couple 500 pounds ($775) for “sexual orientation discrimination.”
The couple appealed the decision and had a hearing scheduled for Feb. 3. Daniel McArthur said their refusal was not discrimination: “It’s not done out of hatred for someone. Rather, it’s done out of love for God, to obey him.”
But after a short hearing on Wednesday, Chief Justice Declan Morgan adjourned the appeal until May 9, due to intervention from Northern Ireland’s attorney general, John Larkin.
The Ashers case could pose a conflict between European human rights law and Northern Ireland’s law, Larkin wrote. The attorney general plans to take up defense of the case himself in future hearings. Legal experts say it’s not clear what Larkin hopes to achieve by intervening in the case.
Gay marriage is still illegal in Northern Ireland, though barely.
Last November, Northern Ireland’s assembly voted by 50.5 percent in favor of legalizing gay marriage, but the Democratic Unionist Party managed to veto any change to the law with a “petition of concern.” Under that mechanism, 60 percent of the assembly would have to favor a legislation change.
The Ashers case drew the ire of LGBT activists in Ireland and England, with leading activist Peter Tatchell labeling the McArthurs bigots. But on Monday, Tatchell shocked many with a very public about-face to support the McArthurs’ right to “freedom of conscience, expression, and religion.”
Tatchell still “profoundly” disagrees with the McArthurs’ beliefs about gay marriage but said he was wrong to endorse the initial court’s ruling. The refusal to bake the cake—which would have been complete with an image of Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie wrapped in an embrace—was not true discrimination.
“His cake request was refused not because he was gay, but because of the message he asked for,” Tatchell said of Lee’s order in an opinion piece published in The Guardian.
If the court rules against the McArthurs, Tatchell said it would open the door for others to force businesses to promote “homophobic slurs,” or “anti-migrant and anti-Muslim opinions.”
That precedent worries the gay activist: “It is an infringement of freedom to require businesses to aid the promotion of ideas to which they conscientiously object. Discrimination against people should be unlawful, but not against ideas.”
But Michael Wardlow, chief commissioner for the state-funded Northern Ireland Equality Commission, which supports Lee’s lawsuit, is pressing forward. The case has nothing to do with religious intolerance or muzzling Christian thought, he said. The important thing to Wardlow is protecting the gay activist.
“Freedom to believe is absolute, [but] freedom to express that belief is always limited,” he said. “In all of this the other person who has a right in this, who seems to have been forgotten, is Gareth.”
Outside the courthouse on Wednesday, Daniel McArthur insisted Ashers Bakery did not discriminate against the customer, only the slogan he wanted on the cake. He hopes the court will overturn the ruling not only for their sakes but for other businesses who don’t want to be forced to endorse every idea.
“As Christians we can’t simply switch off our faith as we enter the workplace in the morning,” he said. “To be a Christian at all is to strive to live for Christ in every corner of our lives.”
The court case has taken a toll on the McArthurs, but the two say they are trusting in God. Amy McArthur, a graphic designer, said she is a shy person and the publicity is “out of my comfort zone.”
“But God hasn’t promised us a comfortable life,” she said. “He has said He will never leave us or forsake us.”
Samantha reports on the pro-life movement for WORLD Digital.