I don’t need to rehash the entire timeline of the Lee v Ashers Baking Company suffice to say that the issue has plagued both the human rights, and the LGBT sector since 2014. I was somewhat involved in the originating event that sparked the entire mishegas, a simple celebratory event held in Bangor Town Hall, hosted by then Mayor Andrew Muir (now MLA for North Down) for Queerspace – a long-running LGBT organisation based in Belfast that has been at the forefront of queer liberation in Northern Ireland for some time. The infamous cake, the one plastered across newspapers and blogs across the globe, was for the most part, delicious. But it wasn’t the cake that Gareth Lee had ordered from Ashers Bakery, and instead had come from an unknown local bakery instead. The slogan “Support Gay Marriage” was emblazoned in icing with a photo of Bert and Ernie of Sesame Stree fame.
I remember speaking with Gareth that day about the spat between himself and Ashers Bakery, who had initially accepted the order but had then refunded him and refused to make it on the basis of the owners’ deeply held Christian convictions against supporting same-sex marriage. I knew then that a storm was brewing and the community would soon be in the eye of the oncoming media frenzy that would surely follow. I wasn’t wrong.
The back and forth between pundits, activists, politicians and newscasters about the merits of ensuring that business owners’ beliefs were reflected in their practice, balanced with ensuring human rights and equality laws weren’t being breached, dragged on for months and years. Each time there was an update in the case brought by the Equality Commission on behalf of Mr. Lee there was a new round of debates in the column inches and on the airwaves about religious freedom versus LGBT rights. I have to admit, it was an exhausting and draining affair having to listen to the opinions of those who had no skin in the game wax lyrical about how people like me, or my husband, should simply accept that businesses had a God-given right to discriminate against us because of their religious beliefs and that forcing them to provide us with equal access to goods and services was somehow tyrannical and a form of persecution.
The usual suspects from the evangelical and political right lined up one after the other to admonish the ‘lifestyle’ of homosexuals, transgender people etc and compared us to Nazis, terrorists, sex offenders, and dangers to children. They did this with impunity both on state-funded broadcasters, in the Assembly, local council chambers, and in the pages of well-circulated newspapers.
In May of 2015 the High Court in Belfast found in favour of Gareth Lee that Ashers Bakery had discriminated against him on the basis of his sexual orientation, political opinion, and religious beliefs. Earlier that year, in January, the now First Minister Paul Givan MLA had championed a piece of private legislation that would effectively render the Northern Ireland Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2006 null and void in certain aspects by allowing businesses to refuse their services to anyone if they believed the services would be utilised in facilitating a same-sex marriage. It would have effectively ensured that companies like Ashers would be able to freely determine someone’s sexual orientation or the perception thereof, and simply refuse to serve them. The private members bill, nicknamed the conscience clause, was supported by Givan’s own party, the DUP, as well as the TUV, some members of the UUP, and the Evangelical Alliance. The legislation never made it as far as the floor of the NI Assembly and was killed by Sinn Fein and other parties within the Executive. The DUP surely knew that this would be the case, and simply promoted the non-starter as a wedge to drive between their religious base, and human rights activists.
In October 2016 the Court of Appeal upheld the verdict of the High Court, leading the owners of Ashers to refer the matter to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. In a unanimous verdict the Supreme Court ruled that nobody could be forced to promote a belief or opinion they did not believe in or profoundly disagreed with, and ruled in favour of Ashers.
It was admittedly a devastating blow for the LGBT community, and the campaign for marriage equality. I remember sitting in the offices of The Rainbow Project, at the time I was the communications lead for the organisation, and the mood in the room was that of quiet contemplation, and sadness. We pondered what, as a community, we could do next given that the judiciary of the United Kingdom, and the political establishment was either against us or totally ambivalent. It was a hard day to be a queer person in Northern Ireland.
The ruling was a setback, for sure, but Gareth Lee made clear his intentions to pursue the matter to the European Court of Human Rights, and has recently been discussed by ECHR News who have referred to it as a “clone” of the 2018 US Supreme Court’s ‘Masterpiece Cakeshop’ case. The ECHR have announced that they will make their judgement known on Thursday 6th January. It’s nerve-wracking, having your rights and entitlements as a human being decided by unknown and faceless arbiters of European law. If they rule in favour of Ashers it could set a precedent that will springboard the religious right into pursuing “religious freedom” style legislative efforts like those seen in the United States, which would allow private businesses to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, or the perception thereof. It would be a devastating blow to human rights in Northern Ireland, and across Europe.
If they rule in favour of Gareth Lee then the picture changes and the rights and responsibilities afforded to us by way of equality legislation and judicial action would remain upheld and protected by the highest court in the land. It would signal that LGBT rights are, in fact, human rights, and that our intrinsic characteristics as queer people is nothing to be legislated against, nor to be ashamed of.
Stephen Donnan-Dalzell is a freelance writer, commentator and LGBT activist. Working in mental health & addictions. They/Them