A prominent gay rights and human rights activist in the U.K. has now publicly expressed support for the family-owned Christian bakery that declined to decorate a cake with a pro-gay marriage message.
London-based Peter Tatchell admitted this week that he changed his mind about the ongoing legal case against Ashers Bakery given the importance of protecting free speech.
“Much as I wish to defend the gay community, I also want to defend freedom of conscience, expression and religion,” Tatchell explained.
The controversy started in May of 2014 when a customer, who reportedly is an LGBT activist, ordered a cake from the Ashers Baking Company’s Belfast store with a gay marriage slogan, along with a picture of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street and the logo of the activist group Queerspace.
After initially accepting the order, Ashers notified the customer about two days later that it would not go forward with this particular cake.
“The cake was ordered for a private function to mark [the] International Day Against Homophobia last year,” Yahoo! News reported at the time.
Same-sex marriage is not yet legal in Northern Ireland, although it is elsewhere in the U.K.
The customer took Ashers to Northern Ireland’s Equality Commission, which filed a lawsuit against the bakery. In May, 2015, a judge found the bakery guilty of sexual orientation discrimination in violation of the Northern Ireland Equality Act and fined the bakery about $775.
An appeal was scheduled to go forward this week, but it was postponed until May 9 upon an 11th-hour intervention by Northern Ireland’s attorney general on constitutional grounds.
“His office wrote to the court setting out issues around a potential conflict between Northern Ireland’s equality legislation and European human rights laws,” BBC reported.
Writing in the Guardian, Peter Tatchell reaffirmed his fundamental disagreement with the bakery’s opposition to same-sex marriage. The dispute, however, revolved around the political message on the cake rather than the sexuality of the customer, he insisted. In that context, while the lawsuit in his view was well intended, “it was a step too far” because it was based on politics.
“This finding of political discrimination against [the customer] sets a worrying precedent. This raises the question: should Muslim printers be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed? Or Jewish ones publish the words of a Holocaust denier? Or gay bakers accept orders for cakes with homophobic slurs?…In my view, 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.”
Parenthetically, the customer in question apparently was able to obtain the cake for the event from an alternative vendor. There are about 100 bakeries in Belfast.
Last June, Ashers received backing from actor Patrick Stewart (Captain Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek and Professor Charles Xavier in the X-Men series), an LGBT advocate, for free speech reasons.
Similar instances have occurred on this side of the Atlantic. For example, after the national backlash against a previously obscure Christian-owned Indiana pizza parlor for an unwillingness to cater a same-sex wedding, a self-described gay businesswoman contributed to their GoFundMe page in recognition of religious freedom.
Along these lines, a lesbian couple that operated a New Jersey T-shirt business of their own publicly expressed support for a Kentucky Christian-themed apparel company that declined to make T-shirts for a gay pride festival and wound up in legal jeopardy.
[Photo by Fabian Bimmer/AP]