‘Ashers Bakery case ruling has silenced free speech for all’

Freedom of speech and freedom of conscience are fundamental to any democracy and must be defended (writes Paul Given).

Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 19th May 2015 Picture by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye Ashers found guilty of discrimination in cake case. A judge has found a Christian bakery which refused to make a cake bearing a pro-gay marriage slogan guilty of discrimination. Ashers Baking Company, which is run by the McArthur family, declined the request for a cake with an image of Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie below the motto Support Gay Marriage. The Equality Commission took the case against the Newtownabbey based company on behalf of Gareth Lee who had trued to order the cake. The DUP's Paul Givan(centre) and Edwin Poots(left) pictured outside the court after the verdict.

In Northern Ireland however a court has now undermined the ability of any business owner to refuse an order that would make them complicit in expressing approval for a particular political position they disagreed with or which would run contrary to their own religious beliefs.

This ruling doesn’t advance tolerance, freedom or a more liberal society. Neither does it tackle discrimination, which cannot be justified and is rightly outlawed.

What it has done is to leave many people confused and fearful about what the law now actually means.

There is a huge difference between refusing to serve a customer because they are gay and what happened in this case where a company wishing to express freedom of conscience by not printing a slogan in support of gay marriage.

You do not have to be a Christian to support the rights of the bakery in this instance. Neither do you have to oppose gay marriage to defend their right not to be forced into printing that message.

The court has silenced a vital element of free speech and freedom of conscience. Those who have rejoiced in the court’s ruling appear to care little about that.

Throughout this controversial issue public opinion has strongly been on the side of Ashers Baking Company.

That support again comes from people of all religious faiths and none.

It comes from people who are strongly in support of same sex marriage and from those who wish to retain the current definition of marriage.

What unites that majority of public opinion is a view that this company should not have been pursued in court.

The company could only be found guilty of discrimination however because the trial judge believes that is what the current law states.

I am pleased and relieved the judgement will be appealed to a Higher Court.

The family will have not taken the decision to appeal lightly, especially given the public and legal scrutiny they have had to endure causing distress and pressures upon them, but the issues at stake are too important for a County Court to have the final decision and I believe there is strong grounds for appeal.

If attempts to overturn this decision fail after exhausting the courts system then the law is wrong and the only option is to alter it. We must move to a position where there is reasonable accommodation between competing rights.

We cannot and should not legalise discrimination, but the only option that can resolve this issue and ensure there is reasonable accommodation for competing rights will be a legislative route which the Judge said is a matter for the Assembly.

No one should fear a debate on the issue and it should not be limited to simply those who take a view on same sex marriage.

The consequences of the court ruling are far-reaching and mean that the law now forces people to produce goods promoting a cause with which they strongly disagree.

That is not the bedrock of a modern, liberal, tolerant society.

The Council of Europe recently called on member states to ensure the reasonable accommodation of religious beliefs and practice.

That concept, applied in a spirit of tolerance will be much more productive than a court ruling which is, in effect, an assault on basic civil liberties.