Today marked a victory for equality in Northern Ireland. The Court of Appeal today found that Ashers Baking Company had directly discriminated against Gareth Lee on grounds of sexual orientation by refusing to make a cake supporting same sex marriage.
This is a significant development as Northern Ireland slowly enters the 21st century and starts to recognize the rights of those who are discriminated against unjustly. This was a complicated case that attracted significant political and media attention, with the issues of religion, sexuality and discrimination coming to the forefront. These are issues that are rarely discussed in open anywhere in a country that has its politics dominated by religion, but Gareth Lee, with the support of the Equalities Commission, moved the needle today.
The debate will continue to rage on, as the ruling of District Judge Brownlee will do little to sway the opinions of those on either side of the fence. But those that continue to insist that the rights of a private business to refuse service overrule the rights of individuals to not be discriminated against will have to at some point reconsider their stance. Today is a small victory in a jurisdiction that is need of many more in order to shift the public perception of the rights of those who can and cannot be discriminated against.
There is no imposition on private business to advertise or claim anything that they do not believe. This was simply an attempt by a gay man to have a cake make that had an image on it that supported gay marriage. No one was forcing the bakery to fly a gay rights flag or take an advertisement out in the local newspaper proclaiming their support for the LGBT movement. This was simply an issue of whether or not they could refuse service to an individual based on their personal views and beliefs.
Religious rights and freedoms are a sensitive topic in Northern Ireland, and the reason for this needs to explaining. But society is moving forward whether or not the discriminatory individuals want to get on board or not. While individuals are surely allowed to hold their own personal religious beliefs to whatever extent they so choose, they are not allowed to refuse business at a for profit institution that is not acting as a religious organization. If the man had asked a church to make him this cake, it would have been a different discussion.
Gay rights are slowly evolving in Norther Ireland, and this could in fact be a lightning rod for both sides of the argument to dig in their heels. But the dialogue is continuing, and the courts have taken an appropriate step to acknowledge that such discriminatory actions will no longer be allowed in this jurisdiction. Today is a good day for equality in Northern Ireland.