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'Gay cake' case ruling a victory for freedom of speech, not discrimination

It has been four years since the (Christian) owners of a bakery in Northern Ireland refused to bake a cake with the slogan 'Support Gay Marriage' for a (homosexual) customer, yet the 'gay cake' case, as it has come to be known, is back in the news this week.

In May 2015, a Belfast judge ruled that Ashers Baking Company had discriminated against Gareth Lee, who was assisted in court by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, on grounds of his political beliefs and sexual orientation, by choosing not to bake a cake featuring the above slogan. At this time, the manager of the bakery, Daniel McArthur, pointed out that "the ruling suggests that all business owners will have to be willing to promote any cause or campaign, no matter how much they disagree with it".

The bakery then lost an appeal to this ruling in October 2016. This week, however, the Supreme Court, the UK's highest court, has ruled that the decision taken by Mr. McArthur was not discrimination as the bakery did not refuse to bake the cake on grounds of sexual orientation but rather because of a disagreement over the message asked to be put on the cake.

As Mr. McArthur has said himself: 'We didn't say no because of the customer; we'd served him before, we'd serve him again. It was because of the message. But some people want the law to make us support something with which we disagree.'

This ruling by the Supreme Court is a victory for the freedom of speech—it is not a sign of acceptance of discrimination.

Some news sites, including the BBC and CNBC, have mockingly pointed out the fact that the combined legal fees for both sides now amount to £450,000 whilst the original cost of the cake was only £36.50. This seems to suggest that the company shouldn't have bothered pursuing their defense case and should have conceded defeat. This would further suggest that our freedom of speech is a trivial matter and is not worth fighting for.

Indeed, there is a sense that the freedom of speech element of this case has not been taken seriously enough because the case revolves around a cake, rather than, say, a book. Had the original verdict stuck and the actions of the bakery were still considered (in the eyes of the law) as being discriminatory, a precedent would have been set.

Author and journalist Peter Hitchens insisted that we 'get away from the cake. It was a cake but the crucial thing you have to understand in this matter is that the cake was a publication. If it was a book or a pamphlet or a newspaper and they had been told 'you will be punished for not publishing something with which you disagree' then the issue would be absolutely blazingly clear, but because it's a cake people don't notice the outrageously totalitarian nature of it. You must publish this, whether you like it or not is not a rule which can be issued in a free society.'

Gay rights and freedom of speech activist Peter Tatchell asked the following questions on this case...

'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 [authors note: this article was published in February 2016, before this week's ruling] 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.'

If you don't want to see such cases arising then you must not only support the gay bakers who don't wish to accept orders with anti-gay marriage messages, you must also support the Christian baker who doesn't wish to accept orders with slogans such as 'Support Gay Marriage'.