At a time when speech and opinion is as restricted and threatened by the masses as arguably it’s ever been, news out today from Europe’s highest human rights court will come as a relief to many. The court dismissed an attempt to re-open an eight-year legal battle focused on whether small business owners can be forced into saying things that go against their religious convictions. The Strasbourg-based court has decided it won’t rule for or against the UK’s interpretation of the law.
For the UK’s most famous Christian bakers, the final victory will taste sweet.
There’s no denying that the bakers’ decision to not write the words “Support Gay Marriage” was controversial
If you cast your mind back a few years, you might remember that a gay man, Mr Lee, brought a case against the owners of a family-run bakery in Northern Ireland by the name of “Ashers”. When Mr Lee requested that a cake with the slogan “Support Gay Marriage” be designed under the bespoke “build-a-cake” service, Daniel and Amy McArthur kindly apologised and said they had to decline the business. They explained that writing the icing slogan for Lee’s Bert and Ernie themed cake would go against their Christian belief that marriage was for one man and one woman. This was an outrage to Mr Lee. He took the Belfast bakers to court, accusing them of discriminating against him because he was gay.
There’s no denying that the bakers’ decision to not write the words “Support Gay Marriage” on a cake was controversial. At the time of asking for the iced slogan, same-sex marriage was illegal in Northern Ireland and Mr Lee was heading to a party of campaigners who wanted this changed. While Northern Ireland was the last of all four nations to change its law on same-sex unions in 2020, it’s without question how fast majority views on this ancient institution have changed across society in the last thirty years.
It’s also uncontested that the treatment of a person based on their sexual orientation is fiercely protected by the law. The Equality Act of 2010 is unambiguous in prohibiting direct or indirect discrimination, harassment, or victimisation of anyone because they are gay.
What will this mean for those of us who have been fighting for free speech?
But that wasn’t the point in the case. The McArthurs did not care who they sold cakes to; in fact, Mr Lee had been a customer at the bakery many times before the episode and the owners said they would happily serve him in the future regardless of his personal life. The issue was that the bakers, as business owners, did not want to be compelled into writing something that they profoundly disagreed with on religious grounds. As summarised by the court back in 2018 when Ashers was supported by the Christian Institute, “the objection was to the message, not the messenger”. The message was one that the bakers profoundly cared about because of their convictions, regardless of the rapidly changing cultural opinions surrounding it.
When the case reached our Supreme Court a few years ago, the judges rightly distinguished between discrimination based on someone’s personal characteristics and the right of individuals not to be forced to express a political opinion that they fundamentally disagreed with. Freedom was on trial, and it won here in Britain when the judges declared that Ashers was entitled to refuse to make the cake. Now, Strasbourg has said it won’t reignite the debate.
So what should it mean for those of us who have been fighting for free speech but often feel like we’re battling against an ever-more encompassing tide of legal action or censorship?
We should be emboldened to assert that conscience still matters. Society around us may be changing at such a fast pace and those of us with conservative or religious perspectives can feel overwhelmed at times. But Ashers reminds us that we should still hold fast our beliefs, even when the pressure seems overwhelming. Thankfully, this case tells us that we haven’t yet crossed the line where judges are compelling us to say things we disagree with; be that about sexuality, gender, or other matters that go against what we hold to be true. A right to expression includes a right not to hold certain opinions.
These principles are really important, regardless of whether you think the bakers’ refusal to ice the Bert and Ernie cake was right or wrong. For, with all the buzz about “equalities’ all the time, we often lose sight of the fact that how we treat people who are different to us is an entirely different matter to whether we need to feel forced to affirm words or statements that we just don’t agree with. Respecting and valuing another person is not the same as having to always agree with their views. The McArthurs did not discriminate against Mr Lee because he was gay; they just didn’t want to write his message.
Hats off to the couple of brave bakers from Belfast and their legal team for carrying the baton of free expression for small businesses everywhere.
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