Even bigots have rights

For anybody unaware already, a Belfast bakery is appealing a court decision which has ruled that they broke the law by failing to bake a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan on it. The bakers were ordered to pay £500 in damages.

Gareth Lee, member of LGBT advocacy group Queer Space, placed the order on May 9, 2014, for celebrations of International Day Against Homophobia. He received a phone-call two days later to inform him that the order would not be processed.

Ashers, which is run by the McArthur family, have cited that their deeply held religious beliefs mean that they could not, in good conscience, bake a cake with Sesame Street characters Bert & Ernie endorsing equal marriage. They had initially agreed to the sale as Karen McArthur did not want to cause a confrontation in the premises, with the intention of cancelling the order later.

It’s hard for the socially Libertarian among us to find it within ourselves to defend the actions of what most certainly is a bigoted stance. But even bigots have rights. Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s quote, often misattributed to Voltaire, comes to mind, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Our disapproval of somebody’s opinion does not give us the authority to remove their right to hold it.

There’s an obvious feeling of injustice when a person is refused a service, as Mr Lee explained it made him “feel less of a person”. However, there are a few consolations I can provide which I feel should be considered;

Firstly, Mrs McArthur had a kind of decency in not refusing the service in person to avoid the embarrassment Mr Lee would have felt. If we can take any sense of humanity, no matter how benefit of doubt dependent it is, it is that she had taken his reaction into account.

Secondly, Ashers decision to openly and honestly use their religious background as reason to deny the service allows them to be seen in full view of the public as homophobic. This is the most important aspect of this argument, which liberals are unfortunately becoming blind to. It can see their business suffer, and their reputations muddied beyond repair.

Obviously, the best business model for a private company to follow involves gaining the most profit in a way that attracts the most consumers. Supplying the best product, at the best prices, will attract a larger client-base. Simple. Alienating a large amount of your customers is to be avoided. It is not for any of us to decide for Ashers how they ought to run their business, though. And if they wish to risk their reputation and trade due to their principles, then it is not for us to interfere.

Many have used, and criticised, the defences for this case; should a gay printer have to print a product with Leviticus passages on it? Should a Jewish baker be forced to bake a swastika-shaped cake? Should a Muslim butcher be forced to provide non-halal meat? In all these cases, the obvious answer is ‘no’. It does go to reinforce, though, the uncompromising essentiality of an open and free market, where business owners can be fully transparent on their views, and people have a choice of where and with whom they trade their hard earned money. Surely, many would like to know whether their cash is going to profit a person of purer social morality, and only through transparency in trade can we be sure of this.

Take the recent Bruce Springsteen controversy. The artist used his conscience to deny a service to the people of North Carolina, due to an anti-LGBT bill that had been introduced. Would we be telling Springsteen that he must provide this service, even though he strongly disagrees with the choices and opinions of those he’s trading with? No, we leave that right to him. And the McArthurs should be treated no differently. We can leave public opinion to treat them differently.

Springsteen’s popularity has seen his popularity rise and has resulted in other performers and traders boycotting and caused the state’s governor to apologise to him.

The McArthurs, on the other hand, are actually gaining a rise in support as they are being seen as the victims in this case; even those who disagree with their opinions on religion and marriage, including many people actually from the LGBT community, are backing their right to freedom of association. Had Ashers been allowed to discriminate freely without repercussions; then the media attention and customer backlash would have wiped them off Royal Avenue by now.

Dan is is the Conservatives for Liberty Northern Ireland Policy Analyst. Follow him on Twitter: @danieljgavigan

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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty