- Freedom of Conscience – the Ashers debacle
Well, Bert and Ernie have now been legally awarded their cake and are by law entitled to eat it. The McArthurs, owners of the infamous ‘heterosexual cakes only please’ law breaking bakery have no regrets. Guilty by law but innocent in God's eyes. A belief in its own that calls in to question the civil institution of the law and its right to make judgements that run contrary to God’s law!!!!
The judgement which ruled against them, was based on Ashers operating as a business for profit – not prophet mind you – and as such their own personal beliefs should not have entered in to their decision to refuse to bake the cake.
The judgement has been hailed as victory for equality for the Gay community and a loss to society as a whole, through an attack on freedom of conscience.
Support for Ashers has mainly come from the crew of the Ark (DUP) supporters but with a selection of religiously conservative Taigs. Although not as a collective front on Calvary Hill for the Cross borne by the crew of the Ark is purer and unsullied than that borne by the Taigs – one man’s cross is another man’s axe!
Sammy Wilson has condemned the judgement and called on for a change in the law to keep in step with the majority of people’s views here and not to be so antiquated.
Quite an astonishing demand to make considering it was the same Wilson who while as Finance Minister at Stormont, and in relation to the Defamation Bill, and working against the majority of people’s views, took a unilateral decision, described as outrageous by a London based Press freedom body, to halt the extension of libel reform to Northern Ireland without consulting other parties on the issue. He was supported in his stance by party colleague Ian Paisley Jr who led the attack on it at Westminster. Must have been what God ordained.
The media has reported on both aspects of this case, with certain publications, clearly stating their support for Ashers through highlighting the impact this decision will have on freedom of conscience while at the same time stating a quiet respect for the law, except that is, this judgement.
So what is freedom of conscience? There are many definitions and accounts of what it is, how it is endorsed by various international global bodies, how it has been stifled, how it has been confused with freedom of speech or expression and of how it has been censored.
It could be described as the freedom of an individual to hold a viewpoint independently of others, or a right to hold dissenting beliefs that run contrary to popular culture and free from repression from holding such beliefs.
But more importantly we should ask what it isn’t? And what it is isn’t, is the right to freedom of bad actions. An individual person is not entitled to enforce their viewpoint, thought or belief on another individual to the extent that their action results in a loss of an individual’s civil liberties. Freedom of bad actions does not exist and the Law is there to ensure that doesn't happen.
And in Ashers' case that is exactly what has occurred. The McArthurs have every right under freedom of conscience to hold whatever viewpoint they so wish but what they don’t have is the freedom to make decisions which impact upon the rights of others in a society where those rights are institutionalised and guaranteed by law.
Should a Neo Nazi walk in to a Jewish bakery here and ask to have a cake baked commemorating Hitler’s birthday, the Jewish baker is quite within their right to refuse to bake it as Neo Nazism is not enshrined in law.
Should a Muslim production line technician on a weapons assembly refuse to work because the final product is sold to Israel to be fired on Gaza then that Muslim has no right to refuse to work for there is no law forbidding its sale to Israel nor stipulating their use of it.
The UUP have come out in favour of the decision but have expressed that it should have and could have been dealt with in a more mature manner without the public purse having to incur the expense of a trial. They may have been right but the fact is that they, Ashers and the plaintive, were unable to resolve their dispute and thus the need for the courts.
Once it entered the realm of the courts Ashers had very little chance of success for the law is the law. Precedent cases in England, B&Bs and bakers also, had set the model and they, feeling aggrieved that they should have to work against their conscience felt that they could call upon the law to act in their favour and endorse their stance. That may have had more chance of success if no law had been broken or there was no law to be broken but the fact remains that they broke the law and thus were never likely to succeed.
The morality or ethics of their stance was never going to be the deciding factor. It was always going to be the rule of law. So Wilson, like many of his fellow Ark-rights, is perturbed that the law hasn’t worked in their favour and as such has demanded a change to reflect that annoyance.
The law is the law but only when it suits.