A Christian-run bakery which refused to produce a marriage equality cake has been found guilty of discrimination in a landmark legal case today in Northern Ireland.
The courts in Northern Ireland have given the LGBT Community a rare gift today, protection and legal recognition of our right to service free from discrimination. Asher's Bakery, the business at the centre of the so-called "Gay Cake Row" has been found guilty of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation this morning in Belfast. Asher's Bakery, run by the McArthur family, declined to bake a cake with a picture of Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie with the slogan "Support Gay Marriage". The bakery's owners said they refused the order because the cake's slogan was contrary to their religious beliefs.
The now infamous cake was ordered last May by LGBT rights activist Gareth Lee for a private function marking the International Day Against Homophobia. The Northern Ireland Equality Commission, which monitors compliance with Northern Ireland's anti-discrimination laws, brought the case on his behalf. Making the ruling, Judge Isobel Brownlie said; "This is direct discrimination for which there is no justification." Asher's are "conducting a business for profit, they are not a religious group". Judge Brownlie accepted that Asher's have "genuine and deeply held" religious views, but said they were not above the law.
The decision is by far more significant than the £500 damages awarded. Same-sex marriage remains a deeply contentious issue in Northern Ireland and attempts to bring about equality have been rejected four times by the devolved government at Stormont. The most damaging element of this case has been how our politicians have attempted to use the Asher's case to justify amending equality laws to facilitate discrimination against the LGBT community with the so-called "Conscience Clause Bill."
The Democratic Unionist Party's Paul Givan is bringing forward this private member's bill in the Northern Ireland assembly which would make it legal for those with "strongly held" religious convictions to refuse to provide certain services to LGBT people, like renting them a room or accepting a restaurant booking. However, Sinn Féin have promised to block the bill if it ever reaches the stage of a vote at Stormont. The party announced that it has managed to rally up enough support for a 'Petition of Concern'; a mechanism which would require the bill to achieve cross-community support and, therefore, the bill would not pass into law.
Although I'm grateful that this bill will not pass, personally, I'm frustrated that the petition of concern is still being misused in this way. It was intended for a very different purpose. It was designed to support equality in an intensely divided post-conflict society, as a way to safeguard minority rights in Northern Ireland's fledgling power-sharing government. Any 30 MLAs can trigger a petition of concern over any legislation they choose. Once they have signed it, the legislation has to receive a majority vote in both the unionist and nationalist designations. The petition was intended to prevent one side's representatives pushing through measures which have a disproportionate effect on the other community.
The DUP is the only party with the requisite 30 MLAs to raise a petition of concern on its own without any other party's support. In recent years it has used the device like an addict, including on issues like gay marriage which affect both sides of the community equally. In my opinion, I honestly believe that Northern Ireland is in a place where the use of this vetoing device should be limited, or abolished altogether. The sad fact is that even if changes were proposed to the current system, if the DUP doesn't like the amendments they can always block them - with a petition of concern.
I dream of a day when victories for the LGBT Community can be achieved in our own Parliament, through democratic principles and mechanisms rather than having to constantly turn to the courts. It's a victory for justice and equality today, but the fact that we had to go to court at all leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.
This blog was written Mary Hassan. Her views are entirely her own.