|Gareth Lee - Victim of Christianity|
A Belfast Court has ruled that Christians are not exempt from Northern Ireland's equality laws and free to discriminate, as they had claimed. This ruling establishes the principle that a person's religion does not entitle them to victimise those with whom they disagree or those with a lifestyle of which they disapprove.
It is illegal in Northern Ireland, under UK (and European) Human Rights law to discriminate against a person in the provision of goods and services on the grounds of their sexuality (amongst other things).
Reader may remember me reporting on this case last November when the story first made the news. Briefly, Ashers, a bakery from County Antrim had refused to bake and decorate a cake for gay rights activist, Gareth Lee, because he had wanted the slogan "Support Gay Marriage" included in the decoration along with a picture of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street and the logo of the Queerspace organisation. Same sex marriage is still not legal in Northern Ireland and the cake was to be part of a campaign to have it legalised.
The case against Ashers was supported by the Equalities & Human Rights Commision, the statutory body established by Parliament to promote equality in the UK.
Ashers initially accepted the order but then declined on the grounds that it went again the owner's 'sincerely held religious beliefs'. They argued in court that their rights as Christians should take precedence over those of gay people (and by implication the rights of anyone else with whom they disagreed). In keeping with similar decisions in the UK Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights, the judge ruled that this was a clear case of discrimination and so was illegal.
As expected, fundamentalist Christians are incensed by the ruling. Creationist and DUP MLA, Paul Givan, pre-empted this ruling by proposing a 'conscience clause' which would have the effect of allowing anyone to discriminate against anyone else if they could claim a sincerly held religious belief to excuse it. Northern Ireland used to epitomise what happens when a group of people with a sincerely held religious belief that Ulster should be 'a Protestant state for a Protestant People' and that Catholics should be denied basic democratic rights, hold a monopoly on political power. Some Protestants are still having difficulty coming to terms with having to treat Catholics as full human beings.
Paul Given has a track record of abusing power to try to impose his 'sincerely held' creationist fundamentalism on people. As a member of Lisburn City Council he tried to get creationism taught as science in Lisburn's schools. He is on the board of governors of two primary schools. Last year he showed his contempt for equalities legislation when, as Chair of Stormont's Justice Committee, he allegedly abused a prostitute invited to give evidence to the committee on proposed changes to legislation by asking her how much she charged and accusing her of discriminating against disabled people by not offering them a discount.
Coincidentally, the Republic of Ireland is due to vote in a referendum on Friday on the question of legalising same-sex marriages. Opinion polls suggest a substantial majority for a 'Yes' vote but the result may be closer than many people expect. Ireland has a habit of returning unexpected results in referenda. Nevertheless, the fact that the vote is being held at all in the Republic and that a substantial number (maybe a large majority) of people are in favour of same-sex marriages would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago and signifies just how far Humanist ideas have penetrated Irish society as the once all-pervasive Catholic Church heads into oblivion and Ireland follows the rest of Europe into secular humanism.