ANDREW PIERCE defends the ‘gay cake’ family against bigotry claims

‘I know what bigots look like… and it’s not the couple I met’: After devoutly Christian partners won their Supreme Court trial ANDREW PIERCE defends the family slammed for refusing to bake a cake carrying a gay slogan

Come along inside. We’ll see if teas and buns can make the world a better place.’ The quotation from children’s classic The Wind In The Willows is emblazoned in the window of the eight Ashers bakery shops in Northern Ireland.

For more than 60 years, the McArthur family, which owns the bakeries, has been true to that optimistic sentiment.

The name is derived from Asher who, in the Book of Genesis, is one of the 12 sons of Jacob and forebear of one of the tribes of Israel. It was predicted his ‘food would be rich’, and he ‘would provide delicacies fit for a king’.

Daniel and Amy McArthur, who won yesterday’s unanimous Supreme Court ruling. They are devout Presbyterians, and their Christian views are well known to their customers

The Biblical name is a public affirmation of the deeply held Christian faith of Daniel and Amy McArthur, who won yesterday’s unanimous Supreme Court ruling. They are devout Presbyterians, and their Christian views are well known to their customers.

There are Biblical quotations on the company website, and they have never opened on Sundays, when they attend church. Daniel and Amy McArthur, both 29 — with four children aged between five and ten weeks — are proud to serve Catholics and Protestants. And gays and lesbians. Transgender customers are welcome, too.

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But they draw a line at being used in a political game. Gay rights activist Gareth Lee ordered a cake with images of Bert and Ernie, puppets from television show Sesame Street (a former scriptwriter on the show said last month they were gay characters), along with the logo of Queerspace, a gay rights campaign group, and the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’.

There is a strong suspicion Ashers was targeted, because if the order was rejected it was clear it would provoke a political storm. Sure enough, ever since Ashers rejected the order they have been at the centre of an intense international debate.

The gay cake row has been making headlines as far afield as Australia and India. The family has been subjected to a torrent of social media abuse. They have been called bigots, religious fanatics, and Christian zealots. Yet they are nothing of the sort.

I met Daniel, who has a degree in aeronautical engineering, and Amy, at their home on the outskirts of Belfast four years ago. I interviewed them just after the Equality Commission For Northern Ireland had publicly trampled over their religious beliefs to make a political point.

They made me welcome, even though they knew I was openly gay and in a civil partnership.

The cake they served me was delicious. They were a delightful couple, but they were bewildered (and still are) by the ferocity of the attacks on them and the way their Christian beliefs were mocked.

They were crystal clear in their view of what had happened: they hadn’t refused to make the cake because Gareth Lee was gay. He was a regular in their bakery, for heaven’s sake, as yesterday’s ruling made clear.

They objected to being drawn into a political controversy in support of gay marriage, which they oppose, and which is still illegal in Ulster.

To hear the hysterical reaction yesterday of some of the gay community, you would think the Supreme Court had legalised discrimination against the LGBT community. The court, in fact, made an important ruling about freedom of expression.

They were taken to court yesterday by gay rights’ activist Gareth Lee, pictured yesterday outside the Supreme Court in London

While Christian bed and breakfast owners in the recent past were clearly wrong to deny services to gay people, this case is different. It is about the refusal to facilitate an idea — namely, support for same-sex marriage.

Justice was done yesterday because forcing people to promote a cause they disagree with, especially in an overtly political context, is neither fair nor free.

The issue at stake was not just about special protection for Christians. The truth is, if the McArthurs had lost, freedom of conscience would have been under threat, by order of the State.

I’m sorry, but the true test of a free and democratic society is that competing views are debated, not crushed by an unaccountable government quango — which, by the way, brought this case at a reported cost to the public purse of hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Since I came out in my 20s, life has become much easier for gays and lesbians. We have an equal age of consent, civil partnerships, gay marriage, and we can serve on the front line in the military.

But our work is not done. Homophobic abuse is still rife. Only last year at Brighton races I was verbally abused by a group of drunks as ‘that queer bloke off the telly’.

My straight friends were aghast. I’ve heard it all before.

The McArthurs refused to bake this cake supporting gay marriage and were taken to court

I still regularly receive mail from the purple ink brigade. I don’t need to open the letters to know what’s inside.

It’s why this week I’m in Cardiff in my role as chairman of the Iris Prize, an international LGBT film festival. Let me tell you, it’s easier to be gay in Soho than on the Swindon council estate where I was brought up.

But in this more inclusive world, gays must not become authoritarian bullies.

There would be a terrible irony if the bigotry and intolerance we have fought against for years was turned instead against committed Christians who have the courage to stand up for their convictions by opposing a change in the definition of marriage.

The law should never have been allowed to persecute a decent Christian family which chose to stick to its guns — when baking the cake would have been the easier option.

Recently, the government has rightly announced that straight couples should be able to enter into civil partnerships, which were introduced for same sex couples in 2003.

But how did the pendulum of equality swing so far in one direction that I could have a civil partnership but my straight friends could not?

If Ashers had lost yesterday, it would have been only a matter of time before there was a test case over whether a Muslim printer should be obliged to publish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, or a Jewish printer to publish a book that propagates Holocaust denial.

Discriminating against people should be illegal, but surely we have the right to disagree with others’ ideas and opinions. The ruling yesterday was a victory for decency and common sense, and will hopefully put a brake on some of the more extreme views voiced by the gay community.

Even veteran gay rights activist Peter Tatchell backed Ashers in their right to reject the order.

And I’ve made an important decision. The next time I celebrate the anniversary of my civil partnership, I’ll ask Ashers to bake the cake.

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