A bakery in Northern Ireland is facing a legal battle over its refusal to put the words "support gay marriage" on a cake last year, with a columnist who favors same-sex nuptials publicly coming out in support of the company in a recent op-ed that touted free speech and conscience rights.
Belfast Telegraph writer Fionola Meredith defended Ashers Baking Company's right to refuse the slogan – an act that has placed the Christian-owned business in the government's cross-hairs, with Northern Ireland's equality commission going after the cake-makers.
Problems began for the bakery after customer Gareth Lee, a gay rights activist, reportedly requested that the cake include the aforementioned line along with an image of Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie. Ashers Baking Company responded by citing its owners' evangelical Christian faith in the refusal, the Guardian reported.
Despite sharing her ideological disagreements, Meredith defended the bakery.
"No company should be under any obligation to facilitate the dissemination of beliefs that are antithetical to the ethos of that business," Meredith wrote in a recent op-ed. "Not only does that radically infringe their rights to freedom of conscience, it does nothing to advance the cause of equality."
She went on to write that fair treatment and tolerance wouldn't be advanced if Ashers Bakery is forced to write "support gay marriage" on one of its cakes, noting, instead, that such a mandate would essentially be government coercion.
"All that would be achieved is a form of state-enforced hypocrisy that stinks to high heaven," Meredith wrote, noting that she finds its odd that the bakery is being held to tough standards while gay marriage, itself, remains illegal in Northern Ireland.
The writer expressed her disagreement with the bakers and noted that they won't be getting her business, but highlighted her belief that freedom should trump personal views on the issue.
"This is not about right or left, secular or religious, gay or straight. It's about remaining faithful to the the vital principles of freedom of conscience and freedom of speech which underpin our democracy," Meredith wrote. "We dilute them at our peril."
She continued, "The practising of selective tolerance, where some views are acceptable and others are not, especially if policed and enforced by state agencies, has more than a whiff of the Stasi about it."
Read the rest of her commentary here.
The refusal to make the cake has resulted in a legal conundrum, with the bakery currently in court under Northern Ireland's 2006 Equality Act, which makes discrimination illegal.
Here's a brief statement from Ashers Baking Company's general manager Daniel McArthur:
Lee told a court on Thursday that he was made to feel like a "lesser person" when the bakery refused his order, according to the BBC.
"I expressed disbelief. I couldn't believe it was happening. This is Northern Ireland. This shouldn't happen," he said. "I wasn't asking anyone to support my views on anything. It was just an everyday transaction."
But McArthur explained that the family was simply trying to remain "faithful to the Bible."
"Our problem with producing the cake we were asked to make last year was with the message not the customer," he said. "We just didn’t want to be forced to use our creative skills to help endorse and promote a campaign message that went against our sincerely held religious beliefs."
A judgement is not expected in the case for weeks, according to the Christian Institute, the firm representing the bakery. Read more about the Ashers Bakery case here.