ROME (RNS) In an about-face that has surprised many of his allies, a prominent gay rights campaigner has criticized a court’s decision in Northern Ireland to charge a bakery with discrimination for refusing to ice a cake with a slogan in support of same-sex marriage.
Peter Tatchell of Great Britain, a leading voice on LGBT issues, came to the defense of the Ashers Bakery in Belfast with a column published on Monday (Feb. 1) in The Guardian.
A customer, Gareth Lee, went to court in 2014 after the bakery refused to ice a cake with the phrase “support gay marriage,” with staff members arguing it was against their Christian beliefs.
Lee won his discrimination claim and Ashers was ordered to pay 500 pounds (about $720) in compensation. Although Tatchell at first supported the outcome, he now says — as the case heads for appeal — that he has changed his mind.
“Much as I wish to defend the gay community, I also want to defend freedom of conscience, expression and religion,” wrote Tatchell. The campaigner argued that there was no evidence Ashers discriminated against Lee as a gay individual, but instead because the staff didn’t agree with his message.
“In my view, it is an infringement of freedom to require businesses to aid the promotion of ideas to which they conscientiously object. Discrimination against people should be unlawful, but not against ideas,” he said.
Tatchell argued the court ruling “set a worrying precedent,” suggesting it could lead to Muslims being forced to published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, or Jews made to publish the work of a Holocaust denier.
He nonetheless reserved strong criticism for Ashers’ opposition to gay marriage: “They claim to be Christians, yet Jesus never once condemned homosexuality, and discrimination is not a Christian value. Ashers’ religious justifications are, to my mind, theologically unsound.”
Gay marriage is banned in Northern Ireland, despite being legal in the rest of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.
(Rosie Scammell writes from Rome for RNS)