BELFAST (Christian Examiner) – Ashers Baking Co., the Christian-owned business that ignited a legal firestorm in Northern Ireland over its refusal to bake a cake with a pro-gay slogan, has lost its appeal before a court there.
But the decision has even gay rights activists split, with some crying foul for fear the decision may come back to haunt the country.
The company and its general manager, Daniel MacArthur, have been locked in this most recent court battle since a court ruled in May that Ashers discriminated against Gareth Lee, a gay rights activist who wanted a cake with the Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie on it – accompanied by the slogan "Support Gay Marriage."
The judgment opens a can of worms. It means that a Muslim printer could be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed and a Jewish printer could be required to publish a book that propagates Holocaust denial.
Ashers initially accepted the order, but later returned Lee's money and said they could not bake the cake. Northern Ireland remains a staunchly conservative country and the only part of the United Kingdom that has no law allowing homosexual marriage.
Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, who delivered the verdict for the three-judge panel said any supplier – Ashers in particular – has to provide a "particular service to all or to none but not to a selection of customers based on prohibited grounds."
Lee, who initially brought the suit, said he was relieved that the appellate court had found in his favor.
MacArthur, however, said the ruling was foreboding.
"If equality law means people can be punished for politely refusing to support other people's causes then equality law needs to change," he said. "This ruling undermines democratic freedom, it undermines religious freedom, and it undermines free speech."
Ashers has had an unusual ally in the legal battle for the past year. Peter Tatchell is a gay rights activist who announced last year that he was siding not with his fellow activists, but with MacArthur and his wife.
Tatchell said the verdict set a "dangerous authoritarian precedent" and curtailed freedom of expression.
"Although I strongly disagree with Ashers' opposition to marriage equality, in a free society neither they nor anyone else should be compelled to facilitate a political idea that they oppose," Tatchell said.
"The judgment opens a can of worms. It means that a Muslim printer could be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed and a Jewish printer could be required to publish a book that propagates Holocaust denial."
Another gay man also came to the defense of Ashers Baking Co. Journalist Neil Midgley wrote in the Telegraph that he was "horrified" by the ruling that forced the bakers to violate their beliefs.
"I am a gay man. I support equality under the law for people of all sexual and gender inclinations. More to the point, I love cake. Nonetheless, I'm siding with the Christians. This gay plaintiff is wrong; the law is wrong. Nobody should be forced by law to bake anybody else a cake. Ever," Midgley wrote in the paper.
That doesn't mean Midgley agrees with the staff at Ashers. In fact, he called their religious views "silly." But he wrote that religious freedom has to be respected the same as "freedom of sexuality."
"As a gay man, I vehemently support the Christian bakers' right not to bake pro-gay cakes," he wrote.
Midgely claims he chose to support MacArthur and Ashers because laws may again change to limit his sexual choices. When they do, he said, he hopes the Christians will remember that he supported them.