Arising from Ashers.

By Niall Crowley.

If I am a baker am I really going to run the rule over all my customers to see how they intend to use my cakes before I make a sale? Baking would get a lot harder and a lot less commercial if I took on that task. I would not be a happy baker if someone made me liable for how my cakes were used, what they celebrated, and whose events they graced. I am a baker I would say and this is none of my business.

Ashers bakery in the North would have it otherwise in refusing to bake a cake with a motto supporting same sex marriage for a gay customer. They argued for freedom of conscience but actually sought the freedom to discriminate. A Belfast Court has just found them guilty of discrimination on foot of a case supported by the Equality Commission of Northern Ireland. The case has generated mixed responses. Fintan O’Toole appeared to agree with Ashers Bakery in a recent Irish Times article.

The bakers won’t bake the cake for the wedding. If that got wings where would it all end? The printers don’t print the invites. Well that’s already happened south of the border. Maybe jewellers will lose the run of themselves and won’t sell the rings. Travel agents will refuse the bookings. We all know what you’ll be doing on your honeymoon. The hotel, inevitably, won’t make a room available. How could it? Same-sex marriage, will not be much fun if this became the new norm.

It’s easy to parody it all, but it would be a mistake to forget that discrimination hurts. It hurts so much that people generally put the head down, suck up the insult, and turn their back without challenging it. It’s too hard and nothing seems to change anyway. Discrimination, where somebody is treated less favourably just because of who they are, undermines not just your confidence, it drains your sense of self worth.

Discrimination doesn’t do much for the perpetrator. Stereotypes cloud reason, common sense, and any ability to relate as humans. Personal characteristics get in the way of common humanity and permit you to do things that, in any other context, you would find abhorrent. You end up contradicted in your values and diminished in your potential.

Discrimination is bad for society. It divides society into the ‘normal’ and the ‘other’. A false and suffocating homogeneity takes hold and ties us all to its yoke. Societal values are undermined and the world becomes a harsher place to live in. Conform or leave becomes the only choice. Disadvantage becomes so common it is as if this is the way life is supposed to be.

That is why we have legislation, north and south, to prohibit discrimination. You only get mutual acceptance where a basic standard of non-discrimination is set out in law and enjoys popular acceptance. No one forced us to do this. Politicians in the south campaigned on the promise of introducing such legislation way back in 1992. We elected them on the basis of this promise and, strange as it may seem, they kept that promise. We have had the Equal Status Act since 2000.

The Act prohibits discrimination in the provision of goods and services. Nine grounds are covered including the ground of sexual orientation. There have been a small number of important cases on this ground but no landslide. In part this is because of under-reporting by those who experience discrimination. In part it is because people accept that discrimination is not to be tolerated, for everyone’s sake.

You would want to have a very good reason to allow discrimination given its negative impact. That is why there are few exceptions in our equality legislation. In fact, it is why there should be even fewer exceptions. Exceptions diminish the foundation stone established by the legislation and end up endorsing discrimination. As an egalitarian baker I might not be too happy where some of my cakes end up too. Even though discrimination on any of the nine grounds might not be involved, I should have to accept that I am only a baker. I can call up the boundaries of incitement to hatred legislation, but only when the extremes really misuse my cakes.

There is argument now in the North for a freedom of conscience exception in the legislation. The Ashers Bakery case is not a matter of conscience. It is a matter of exclusion. It is not a matter of one person’s religious belief being compromised. It is a matter of discrimination. Just as same sex marriage does not threaten religious freedom, baking a cake does not undermine freedom of conscience.

The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland has done us all a service in taking this case. It did so in a context of harsh political pressure, and prevailed. It has valuably established why we need effective and independent equality bodies, for everyone’s sake. •