Northern Ireland

Ashers case: Gay activist supports Christian baker

Ashers Bakery Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Issues of freedom and where those freedoms extend to are at the heart of this argument

It is almost four years since a gay man tried to place an order for a cake with the slogan 'Support Gay Marriage' iced on it.

We know now that the cake was never to be, but the dispute which followed has made its way to the highest court in the land.

On Tuesday, the man who wanted that cake and the owners of the business which refused him were separated by just a few seats in the Laganside Court in Belfast.

The protagonists are easily spotted, but years of debate, dispute and deliberation have left many others scratching their heads about where they stand.

Issues of freedom and where those freedoms extend to are at the heart of this argument.

'Unrealistic examples'

Can you support someone's right to be gay, while opposing a businesses right to provide the products it wants?

Can you separate the gay person from the message he wanted to promote?

And should a business be told, by law, to promote a message it fundamentally disagrees with?

A debate which, at first, may have seemed straightforward, has become a minefield, with one prominent gay-rights campaigner even changing his stance.

Peter Tatchell initially supported Gareth Lee, the man who tried to order the cake.

He opposed Asher's Bakery and their refusal to provide a bespoke service to Mr Lee.

But now he says he doesn't believe that anyone should be forced to promote any political or religious message.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The five Supreme Court justices are yet to decide which side they are on, they will not rush to judgement

"In the case of this particular controversy, Asher's did not refuse to serve Gareth Lee because he was gay, they simply refused to put a message on his cake," he told the BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme.

Mr Tatchell said he supported that Northern Ireland LGBT movement and marriage equality, but his view has now come down on the side of "freedom".

"I think discrimination in marriage law is a fundamental violation of human rights," he said.

"Now I wish they had agreed to put the message on the cake, but I think they have a right not to do so, in the same way as a gay baker shouldn't be forced to put a message on a cake that is anti - gay."

Ciaran Moynagh, a member of the legal team representing the Equality Commission, said the arguments have got into "the realms of unrealistic examples".

'Equally and fairly'

"People who provide public services can't pick and choose who they provide those services to based on specific characteristics - political opinion, religious belief or sexual orientation," he said.

"Ashers were offering a service - bespoke printing - and they did not serve Gareth Lee. He was refused.

"The message, or the idea, or the opinion, cannot be separated from Gareth Lee - he is a part of that.

"Ashers is a company conducting business for profit and that must be done in society equally and fairly."

The five Supreme Court justices are yet to decide which side they are on, they will not rush to judgement.

It could be February 2019 before they make up their minds.

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