PETER FROST reports on a Northern Ireland case combining confection, Christianity and a not-so-liberal sprinkling of homophobia
NORTHERN Ireland district judge Isobel Brownie is taking rather longer than expected to give her ruling on what has become known as the “gay cake” case.
When I started work on this article some weeks ago it was predicted that the hearing would take a day and the ruling would be instant.
In fact the case dragged on for three days just before Easter and after the hearing the aptly named Judge Brownie didn’t rule.
She has given no indication of when the judgement will be announced.
The facts of the case are simple. A bakery in Belfast took the order and the payment for a decorated cake. The design requested by the customer featured the image of Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie, the logo of a Belfast-based campaign group called Queerspace and a slogan supporting gay marriage.
The cake was wanted for a civic event in Bangor Castle Town Hall, County Down, to mark International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
Some days later the bakers, Ashers, phoned the customer with the news that they were refusing to fulfil the order. The message on the cake was not acceptable, they said, because of their strictly Bible-based religious beliefs. They did offer a refund.
Gareth Lee, the gay activist who had ordered the cake, wasn’t happy at this blatant homophobia. He complained to the NI Equality Commission, which agreed there was a case to answer.
Ashers manager Daniel McArthur told the commission: “The directors and myself looked at it and considered it and thought that this order was at odds with our beliefs.
“It certainly was at odds with what the Bible teaches, and on the following Monday we rang the customer to let him know that we couldn’t take his order.”
In due course the Equality Commission wrote to Ashers saying that they had discriminated against the customer on the grounds of his sexual orientation and threatened legal proceedings. A huge public row developed and the case eventually went to court.
Northern Ireland is now the only part of Britain which has not passed a law to introduce same-sex marriage. This is mainly because of the extreme political power wielded by various fundamentalist Christian sects and cults.
One such group is the Christian Institute, which speedily offered the bakers advice, political support and legal assistance.
On the other side Alliance councillor Andrew Muir — who hosted the civic event for which the cake was ordered — said he fully supported the action taken against the bakery. “Businesses should not be able to pick and choose who they serve,” Mr Muir said.
“There would not be any debate if the cake had depicted an anti-racism or anti-ageism slogan.
“For Northern Ireland to prosper and overcome our divisions we need a new society where businesses are willing to cater for all, regardless of religious views, political opinion, disability, race, age, sexual orientation, marital status, gender and other backgrounds.”
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is the largest party in Northern Ireland and sends eight MPs to Westminster. David Cameron has been eyeing up the DUP as a potential coalition partner.
Founded by politician and Protestant religious leader Ian Paisley, the DUP is very close to the Free Presbyterian Church — also set up by Paisley. Both weren’t slow to jump on the homophobic bandwagon.
DUP leader Peter Robinson said the Equality Commission had overstepped the mark and the complaint highlighted the need for a conscience clause “to protect Christians and others who have deeply held beliefs.”
Meanwhile his wife Iris Robinson preaches that people can be counselled away from homosexuality. She is obviously a good person to offer moral advice.
In January 2010 a BBC documentary revealed that 60-year-old Iris Robinson (below) had an affair in 2008 and had procured £50,000 in loans for her 17-year-old lover to finance a restaurant. She had failed to declare her monetary interest in the restaurant, despite serving on the council which gave it planning permission.
She was expelled from the DUP and she resigned her seats in both Westminster and the Northern Ireland Assembly. Husband Peter also unexpectedly lost his own Westminster seat in the 2010 general election.
Coincidently another disgraced DUP politician and religious bigot is in the headlines at the moment. I have reported the case of David McConaghie before. He was a DUP agent and speechwriter as well as a senior minister in the Free Presbyterian Church.
Now McConaghie is on bail and facing a court appearance any day now. The charge reads that he “for the purpose of sexual gratification observed another doing a private act knowing that the other person did not consent to being observed for your sexual gratification.”
In between offering political advice and moral sermons back in 2012 McConaghie spied on visitors in the toilet in a DUP MP David Simpson’s Portadown waiting room using an hidden camera.
Another issue being decided in the Belfast High Court this week is the ban on recognising gay marriage in law in Northern Ireland. A gay couple who were married in England but now live in the region are taking legal action aimed at getting equal status for their marriage.
The couple, who have asked to remain anonymous, will press the court to make a declaration that their marriage remains lawfully constituted in Northern Ireland and should be recognised as such.
The region is the only part of the so-called UK where there is a ban on recognising gay marriage in law. It is also the only part were same-sex marriages cannot be conducted.
In April 2013 Unionist politicians defeated by 53 votes to 42 a Sinn Fein attempt to create marriage equality for gay couples in Northern Ireland.
Voting against were the DUP and Ulster Unionist Party. Backing the Sinn Fein motion were the SDLP, Alliance and the Green Party.
The DUP is going on the offensive. It is proposing a “freedom of conscience” Bill at Stormont. It echoes the many such laws being proposed by US Republicans, particularly in the fundamentalist US Bible belt.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 9 April 2015.