The potential consequences of upholding the Ashers Bakery ruling

For those interested in such cases, it seems worth reminding ourselves that the Ashers Bakery #gaycake case is currently being heard in the Supreme Court. You can read some thoughts on that here.

The pertinent details of the case are pretty well known. Northern Ireland is one of the only parts of the United Kingdom in which gay marriage is not legal. In the aftermath, a gay rights activist asked a Christian bakery to bake a cake bearing the slogan, ‘support gay marriage’. The bakery refused, arguing that the message contravened their Christian beliefs. The activist took the bakery to court on the grounds that he felt he had been discriminated against because of his sexuality. The bakery contend that they were quite happy to serve the gentleman in question – as they would anybody – but could not make that particular cake for anybody containing that specific message. The case is in process.

Some of the interesting facts that have passed some people by are these:

  • The bakery had previously served the gentleman now suing them. They have stated categorically that they would happily continue to serve him.
  • The bakery insist they would not bake that particular message for anybody, even if a heterosexual person had requested it. The issue is the message, not the person.
  • Peter Tatchell, one of the most prominent LGBT+ activists in the world, supports the bakery. He sees that they discriminated against an idea, not a person.

The case should be of interest to all of us. As Tatchell has rightly argued, the consequences of a ruling against the bakery are terrifying. The case doesn’t hinge on the illegality of discriminating against a person – which would be wrong – but on the concept of compelled speech. At heart, the question is whether the bakery should be forced to support an idea that they find fundamentally objectionable.

If the ruling is upheld, there is no reason why a Muslim printer couldn’t be forced to produce mocking pictures of Mohammad that they find offensive. It would similarly mean a Jewish baker might be forced to produce cakes containing anti-Jewish messages. It would have knock-on effects for anybody who would object to the dissemination of any given idea. There would be no grounds for refusing to produce any idea, no matter how offensive or objectionable to any given group. This, of course, would lead to a head-on clash between this ruling and case law surrounding hate speech.

Whether you care for the particular views of the bakery or not, we should all be rooting for them to win. The consequences of the decision going the other way will have ramifications for us all. At best, it will mean any speech the government determine should be compelled will be. At worst, it may mean anybody who wants to force someone else to disseminate any offensive and vile view may do so. Whilst such offensive views should be permitted in a free and fair society, something is seriously awry when we compel others to advocate them whether on a cake, t-shirt, book or any other medium. We may end up in a ludicrous situation in which certain views are simultaneously entirely unsayable whilst compelling they be advocated by those providing services to the public.

If we have any concern for free speech, any concern for free thought, we should hope the judgement rules in Ashers’ favour.