Today and tomorrow the case brought by Gareth Lee, a volunteer with the Queer Space collective, supported by the Equality Commission of Northern Ireland against Asher’s Bakery supported by The Christian Institute is to be heard in court. So far as I can tell, this particular cake differs from similar cases in the US in that the cake is not a wedding cake, but, ordered from the bakery last May, was intended as a gift to the first gay mayor in Northern Ireland, and was to bear the message “support gay marriage”. The intended recipient of the cake has himself said he would prefer the case go to mediation rather than the courts, and that he didn’t want to see the religious pitted against LGBT people.
This week, BBC radio 4 broadcast an interesting programme “The ‘Gay Cake’ Affair”, presented by William Crawley, looking that case specifically, and the broader Northern Ireland context. If available, I would recommend listening to the programme. Northern Ireland is a predominantly Christian country, and possibly as a result of decades of sectarian division, there appears to be a stronger protestant or catholic identity amongst those living there, and more particularly in politics. Columnist Alex Kane described the nation as two different Northern Irelands: one that is still fighting old battles; the other, which would appear to have opted out of the political process, simply wants to get on with life and is happy to live and let live.
The argument put forward by the Bakery is that they
“declined the order because it carried a message that conflicts with Biblical beliefs that marriage is given from God and is between a man and a woman. We didn’t confront this customer, not did we question his sexuality. We simply exercised our right not to use creative skills to promote a cause with which we fundamentally disagree.” Daniel McArthur, General Manager, Asher’s Baking Company
The interesting results of a public poll on the case can be seen here. There would appear to be greater public support for refusing a service in this case than for non-creative services such as hotels, restaurants or B&B accommodation, and it appears to be the only scenario surveyed where the majority (56%), deemed the refusal of service to be acceptable.
There are a few points brought out by the programme that I wanted to highlight. On the one hand was the view that it perhaps ought to be recognised that societal change has come a long way very quickly, and uncomfortably so for the conservative element of the population. It wasn’t until 1982 that homosexual acts were decriminalised in Northern Ireland. There are now 3 gay or lesbian councillors on Belfast City Council. That said, violence towards LGBT people in Northern Ireland is a problem. There is some appreciation for the feelings of some Christians that they are being marginalised because of their beliefs, but it has been suggested that evidence needs to be collected to support that. There is some feeling that these fears are unfounded, given that Christians are predominantly running the country, and that they are just unused to having to make accommodations for those with differing views, and have experienced nothing like the levels of oppression together with consequent negative mental health outcomes of those in the LGBT community. Gavin Boyd from the Rainbow Project remarked:
“I know hundreds of people that have left Northern Ireland because they didn’t feel this was a place where they could feel safe, where they could feel welcome. And they didn’t know if they would be able to find a job where they could feel comfortable working here, where they were worried whether they would be able to form a family here, where they were worried who they would vote for here. So I totally understand why many people see Northern Ireland as a deeply homophobic place.”
On the one hand business owners are beginning to fear that they could be taken to court over matters of conscience, and that
“when you have an arm of the law pursuing a hostile legal action like this against a Christian family then … Christians are entitled to feel there is something wrong … are entitled to feel that they’re being treated wrongly.” Simon Calvert, The Christian Institute
On the other hand, as Caitríona Ruane (Sinn Féin MLA) put it:
“Do we want a situation where gay and lesbian people are worried sick every time they go into a shop, or every time they go to a hotel, or every time they book a holiday?”
There were calls for greater concentration on, and tolerance for diversity, and accommodating difference, over language of equality.
Often throughout the programme the case seemed to be discussed in terms of Christians v. LGBT. However, I enjoyed Alex Kane’s observation that
“I know Christian’s who have absolutely no hang up at all with gay marriage and other so-called moral dilemmas and I just think that what we’re seeing and what we will see soon is an internal battle within some of the Christian churches. We’ve already seen it in the Church of Ireland, where there’s been some dispute. We’ve seen in some of the Presbyterian congregations who’ve had the debate quietly, and there’s been no agreement there either. And I just think you are going to end up with a situation … they end up fighting with themselves, and the rest of the world has moved on.”
In any case, Northern Ireland was described as trailing both the rest of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland with respect to LGBT rights.
- What parallels and differences do you see between Northern Ireland and Utah, if any?
- What parallels and differences do you see with the handling of similar cases in the US?
- What do you make of the survey results?
- What do you make of Alex Kane’s observation?