Let them eat cake? Not if they’re gay, they won’t.
That’s the message from Ashers Bakery in Northern Ireland, which has refused to bake a cake featuring the Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie pictured under the words “Support Gay Marriage.”
The bakery owners said the wording amounted to a tacit endorsement of gay marriage, which offends their sincerely held Christian beliefs.
LGBT activist Gareth Lee had ordered the cake to mark the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, ironically enough.
But instead of a frosted cake the gay group Queer Space got a frosty letter from the bakery refusing to do the job, for which Ashers are now facing legal action from The Equality Commission.
Northern Ireland’s first openly gay mayor Andrew Muir has made it clear he supports legal action against the bakery, on the principle that they are subject to the equality law and that businesses should not be able to pick and choose who they serve.
Would people be so quick to defend Ashers if they refused to serve Jews, Muslims or Hindus on the grounds that to do so would offend their religious beliefs?
It’s a good question. Since no one’s bothering to answer it allow me. I can hardly believe that I am writing this but if Queer Space had requested a cake with an image of Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy under a banner that reads “Support Straight Marriage” it would almost certainly have been baked and you would not be reading this article.
That is your first clue that discrimination has occurred. And discrimination on the basis of sex or sexuality is against the law in Northern Ireland.
Ashers general manager Daniel McArthur has remained defiant however, telling the press it is not the first time his company had refused to bake a cake: “In the past, we've declined several orders which have contained pornographic images and offensive, foul language.”
Porn, foul language, gay people – the ease with which McArthur compares all three says all you need to know about his - and his company’s - unexamined entitlement. His message to gays has a familiar and longstanding Northern Irish pedigree: to wit, we’re better than you – shut up and take it.
So the question is why is it OK to support gay marriage but not a gay marriage ban? Well, why is it OK to support gay rights but not the removal of their rights? Why is it OK to battle racism but not to be a racist? Why is it OK to fight bigotry but not to be a bigot?
Take your time. We’ll wait.
The unspoken presumption that there’s equality between the two sides is absurd. Demonstrably, there is not. Northern Ireland is the only remaining part of the UK that does not have marriage for gay couples, because it has been repeatedly blocked by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) whose councilors have variously blamed gays for Hurricane Katrina and even the drop in heterosexual marriages in Spain.
This would be funny if it wasn’t so serious. In every century where religiously inspired homophobia has flourished, religious condemnation hasn’t helped even a fifth of the number of people that it has harmed or killed.
A 2012 Equality Commission report in Northern Ireland found that prejudice and bigotry against gay people has now reached “startling” levels, with 42% of those surveyed saying they would be unhappy if a gay person became their in-law, a 14% rise since the last similar survey in 2005.
Northern Ireland has a long and lamentable reputation for bigotry, which these statistics bear out. Sectarianism, racism, sexism, homophobia still flourish there. Worse, it has a reputation for enabling bigotry through the traditional tribal carve up that retards its development as a mature democracy.
Many people there understand this fact and want to see the end of social inequality. We should support them. Equality is in most people’s interests.
It’s particularly sad to see people like Father Tim Bartlett, who was on the panel of this year’s Belfast Pride event and is a member of the Catholic Council for Social Affairs, conclude that he must now withdraw engagement with all gay groups until “the right of all people to freedom of conscience is respected.”
Farther Bartlett needs to appreciate that gay groups haven’t removed his - or anyone else’s - conscience. Ashers bakery – and indeed he himself - are all still free to oppose gay marriage if he or they so choose.
But they may do this in a private religious capacity, not in a public business capacity. Businesses observe the law not the bible. We live in a democracy, not a theocracy.
If your reading of the bible won’t permit you to accommodate some disfavored groups, then perhaps you should ask yourself if you’d be better off running a church rather than a bakery?
This risible and idiotic cake scrap only serves to remind impartial observers that Ashers may be in the wrong business anyway, because what could be gayer than a big frosted cake?
You may not like your gay neighbors, you may not support their relationships, you may even think that God holds them in a special form of contempt - but you don’t get to single them out for poor treatment.
It’s against the law.