I've just returned from a weekend speaking at a conference on LGBT issues in Belfast. I spent Friday afternoon being shown around the new Belfast LGBT Centre of QueerSpace and other groups offering care for LGBT young people. As part of that I met Gareth Lee, who volunteers there.
Two years ago, Gareth was tasked with sourcing a cake for a private function for the International Day Against Homophobia. He went into a bakery and asked for a cake with the words "Support Gay Marriage, Queerspace born 1998". Ashers bakery accepted the order but later called him to decline it. Gareth who (it now seems legitimately) suspected it might be illegal, took the case to the Equality Commission. There's been a huge amount of heated discussion but it struck me that a few things haven't been clear.
1. Were the McArthurs, who own and run Ashers bakery, being persecuted for being Christians? No. The problem was that Ashers offered to ice cakes with any message requested by the customer. They didn't even mention that they are a "Christian" bakery, unless you can spot that their name is from Genesis 49:20, "Asher's food will be rich; he will provide delicacies fit for a king" (good luck spotting that one, Mr Non-Christian Customer). Gareth only found out that they were a Christian bakery when they called to decline his order.
We can argue whether being a "Christian bakery" adequately explains that you would be against gay marriage but Ashers weren't even consistent within their own definitions. Daniel McArthur was pressed in court on the bakery's willingness to make cakes with witches on for Halloween parties even though they were against their religious views. The problem wasn't that Ashers declined icing the cake, or that they used it as an opportunity to explain in detail to Gareth and the wider media why they believe his relationship ethics are immoral, the problem was their inconsistency.
2. Neither was the issue simply that Gareth Lee is gay. Ashers staff did not know about Gareth's orientation. It was made clear several times that his orientation was irrelevant to the ruling.
3. What does this mean for businesses in England, Scotland and Wales? Not much. This particular case was based around specific laws in Northern Ireland that were brought in during the troubles to stop Protestant shop owners from refusing to serve Catholics and vice versa. Even for businesses in Northern Ireland the ruling does not say that Ashers, or any other business, will be forced to write a message that they disagree with for religious or any other reasons. They need simply to state clearly on their website or shop window what they will and won't offer and then be consistent within that. Ashers now clarify that they don't ice political messages and therefore can continue (entirely legally) to avoid producing "gay cakes" (a phrase as weird as "Christian bakery"). Other businesses can do the same. There are no lengthy or costly discussions with lawyers needed.
Would this have happened if it had been a Muslim bakery who was opposed to gay marriage? As far as any of us know, yes. There's nothing to imply it wouldn't have been treated the same in law and no precedent to suggest that this would not be the case.
Gareth Lee hasn't done a single media interview about it or made a pound from the publicity. QueerSpace save hundreds of young people each year from loneliness, despair and suicide. One of Gareth's coworkers mentioned to me that they have about one young person a week turn up on their doorstep having been kicked out by their Christian parents. We're quick to label people as troublemakers but when you take the time to meet Gareth (as very few Christians have done) he seems to be a kind soul just getting on with volunteering, and caring for young LGBT people.
Do I think Christians should be forced to decorate cakes with messages that they strongly disagree with? No. Should businesses clearly state what they will and won't do and then be held accountable within that? Yes. This isn't persecution of Christians, it's an issue of bad advertising that has been blown way out of proportion.
Rev Sally Hitchiner is coordinating chaplain at Brunel University, London. She is also the founding director of Diverse Church: a series of supportive Christian online communities for young LGBT Christians and their parents that welcomes Christians who are pro gay marriage and who are pro gay celibacy.