In May of last year a Belfast County Court ruled that Ashers bakery had acted unlawfully when it refused to decorate a cake for a Belfast gay rights organization.
This week a Belfast court will finally hear a legal appeal over the ruling.
Clearly Ashers owners Colin McArthur and his wife Karen are going to pursue their so-called ‘gay cake scrap’ to the predictably bitter end. Only now it’s not so much a scrap as a rainbow frosted death match.
For a company that excels at crafting sweet buns, there’s a surprisingly sour aftertaste to this on-the-surface rather clear-cut tale of point counterpoint.
Christians are scripturally called upon to lead by example, but this scripturally inspired cake company has taken a distinctly 2016 approach to the sharing of the Good News, by lawyering up instead.
In fact the conspicuously Christian bakers have just called in the biggest of big guns. Professor Christopher McCrudden of Queen's University, one of Northern Ireland's top legal experts, will join them in court on Wednesday. McCrudden has been enlisted for the team led by David Scoffield, Queens Counsel.
A Professor of Human Rights and Equality Law at Queen's and the William W. Cook Global Law Professor at the University of Michigan Law School, he was Professor of Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford. He studied law at Queen's, Yale University and Oxford University.
Now he’s in a bun fight over gay rights. If you live long enough you really do get to see everything.
The premise driving the conflict is increasingly bitter and scattershot on both sides. Ashers claims they are being forced to compromise their Christian principles and “endorse” a message that their faith rejects.
But gay activists counter that Ashers is not being asked for an endorsement or a blessing at all, instead they are simply being asked to decorate a cake for another paying customer in the manner he chooses. The message on the cake is the gay rights group’s, and no one else’s.
Certainly the growing standoff has hit a nerve. Last March, before the ruling, Belfast’s Waterfront Hall was filled to capacity, in fact it was literally overwhelmed, when thousands of evangelical Christians turned up, anxious to protect their Biblically ordained right to refuse to decorate gay people’s celebration cakes.
They could have been ministering to the poor and the sick, they could have been sheltering the homeless, or even have been praying for peace. Instead they were fighting over two Sesame Street characters on a frosted confection.
What Our Lord would make of where his flock have found themselves now, or rather where they have pitched their battle tents, no one knows. To the outside world the standoff looks irritating or absurd.
From the outside it looks like an evenly matched battle between an immovable object (evangelicals) and an unstoppable force (gay rights), but that impression would be wholly incorrect.
In the biblical parlance that Colin McArthur and his wife Karen might appreciate, it’s actually a David and Goliath struggle and in this case they’re Goliath.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that has not passed a law to introduce same-sex marriage. This is a direct consequence the theocratic mindset of fundamentalist Christians within the wider unionist parties.
One such group is the Christian Institute, which raced to offer the McArthurs their advice, political support and legal assistance.
The current law in Northern Ireland supports Colin and Karen’s marriage and denies all gay people the same legal courtesy. There is no equality. Indeed, the unionist political parties that have lent their support to the scrap are alone in the UK and the wider island of Ireland in their vehement opposition to gay equality.
Many of the Christian groups supporting Ashers have requested a so-called “conscience clause” be introduced into Northern Ireland’s equality legislation. But this is just a thinly veiled attempt to copper fasten or roll back advances made by the gay community. In practice it will be the cooties clause and its target will be gays.
Veteran gay rights leaders have bigger buns to bake, however. This week longtime LGBT activist Peter Tatchell surprised many when, writing in The Guardian, he reversed course and decided that Ashers should be allowed to refuse service to gay customers.
Surprising many, Tatchell wrote that “the finding of political discrimination against Gareth Lee, the man who ordered the “Support Gay Marriage” cake sets a worrying precedent.”
Tatchell continued: “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? If the Ashers verdict stands it could, for example, encourage far-right extremists to demand that bakeries and other service providers facilitate the promotion of anti-migrant and anti-Muslim opinions. It would leave businesses unable to refuse to decorate cakes or print posters with bigoted messages.
“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.”
So there you have it. It’s not a wee bun it’s a Pandora’s box. And the best thing to do with those, history teaches, is leave them unopened.
Ashers may well win the next round. But the truth is that just like the Irish peace process, there can actually be no winners in this unseemly cake scrap, which is so placid on the surface and so intolerant underneath, until both sides learn to live and let live.