Leading article

Dialogue may have avoided court ruling over Ashers

The decision by the Court of Appeal in Belfast to uphold a finding of discrimination against the Ashers bakery company over what has become known as the `gay cake' case should not have caused surprise in any quarter.

When the issue first came before Belfast County Court last year, a district judge explained in comprehensive detail, set out through a 41-page document, why Ashers had been held to be in breach of the relevant legislation.

That verdict was confirmed in unmistakable terms by the three appeal judges earlier this week, and it is difficult to envisage how a different outcome might be achieved if, as has been speculated, the matter is forwarded to the UK Supreme Court in London.

Campaigning for a change in the law also represents a complex and distant process which offers no guarantees of success to supporters of the Ashers company, although it is a course of action they are fully entitled to pursue.

It may ultimately be more helpful to all concerned in the sensitive debate if a period of reflection follows over the sequence of events which led to the bakery coming before the courts in the first place.

The saga began back in 2014 when gay rights activist Gareth Lee attempted to purchase a cake from a Belfast city centre branch of Ashers which was intended to feature an image of the Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie and the message Support Gay Marriage.

Although the order was initially accepted, the company's directors later decided that it was against their beliefs and refunded the payment, with the high-profile legal proceedings, in which Mr Lee was backed by the Northern Ireland Equality Commission and the bakery was supported by the Christian Institute, then following.

The ruling of the Court of Appeal, while decisive, drew particular attention to the role of the Equality Commission, and effectively suggested that it might reasonably have offered advice to both parties in the dispute, and not just Mr Lee, from an early stage of the exchanges.

It will be noted that this opinion also largely reflected the views of the person who was actually intended to receive the now famous cake as a gift, the former Alliance mayor of north Down, Councillor Andrew Muir.

He said at the time that it would have been preferable if appropriate mediation had avoided any need for a judicial hearing, and stressed that an adversarial approach, which pitched people of religious belief against the gay community, was very sad, and did not reflect the kind of society he wanted to see in Northern Ireland.

We now know beyond doubt where the law stands, but many observers will agree with Mr Muir that suitable dialogue, whether it was supervised by the Equality Commission or any other agency acting with goodwill, might well have resolved the arguments before they were ever presented to a court.

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