Several months ago  in Northern Ireland, a scenario involving Ashers’ bakery caused somewhat of an uproar of controversy, this in turn has led to the creation of a ‘conscience clause’ being put forward by the DUP’s Paul Givan. So what happened? What is a conscience clause? What are the rights of the consumer when it comes to purchasing products?

In July 2014, LGBT activist Gareth Lee requested that Ashers, a company run predominantly by a Christian group, produce a cake supporting gay marriage with Bert and Ernie as the mascots of the cake promoting the QueerSpace logo. In the beginning, the order was taken as a ‘celebration cake’ by Ashers who, at the time, did not realize what the person wanted printed on the cake. Ashers in turn gave out a full refund because they could not produce the cake under their Christian values. In turn, when the Equality Commission heard about what had happened, they tried to take the group to court in order to sue them for ‘refusal of service’. The Commission exclaimed that they had refused the customer on the grounds of ‘sexual orientation’. Several months later, a petition started by the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) was put forward in order to support the bakery’s right of refusal under their Christian values and as a result, they have put forward the conscience clause.

So what exactly is this clause you ask? In medical terms, it is a legal clause in some parts of the United States that allows providers of healthcare the right to refuse service for religious or conscience-related reasons. The most famous incident of this type of conscience clause would be abortion, in that certain doctors in the U.S. would refuse to carry out abortion because of their moral beliefs. So what happens when you take this clause and add it to all forms of life in regards to the market? In many scenarios, it could be justified that people may refuse services or goods due to an individual disagreement with someone’s religion, race, sexual orientation etc.

There is a need to tread carefully if the Northern Ireland Assembly does pass this legislation. We already lag behind the rest of the UK in terms of sexual discrimination and LGBT+ rights and allowing for more provocation does not help the situation, it hinders it.

At the same time, were Ashers’ bakery wrong for refusing service? The problem with stating that they refused service due to the customer’s sexual orientation is that it is a cop-out in some ways. The reason the bakery didn’t produce the cake wasn’t because of Gareth’s orientation, but because of the message that the cake purported  – a political one which the Ashers’ community disagreed with.

Ironically, right now in Denver, the exact opposite scenario is going on, whereby a Christian bakery refused to create an anti-LGBT cake and they are now under fire for discrimination.  Several questions arise from this: Why did the Equality Commission pursue this bakery for a somewhat falsified claim? Did the party know that the bakery was predominantly Christian? What rights does the producer have to stop goods being purchased by a consumer? The primary concern is that the producer has a right over what they can and cannot produce, that is their very raison d’etre. Can it therefore be said, that we should force producers to create something, even if they don’t agree with what they are making? No. If any company refuses someone on the basis of their identity then they are clearly in violation of discriminatory laws, but in this scenario however, it wasn’t so much about the identity than about the message that was being sent out there.

This does not mean however, that we should support a conscience clause, as it will only regress society and our very reasoning for having discrimination laws. Both sides of the coin have got this matter completely wrong, the way to solve an issue like this isn’t to collectively force a company to produce something they don’t agree with, nor do we give companies the right of refusal to anyone for any reason or purpose under the guise of what you call ‘conscience’. If a bakery does not produce a cake due to its message, we shouldn’t go further with this and deny the rights of the consumer due to their individuality, nor should we force the producer to create a product they don’t want to; there are bakers more than willing to create a cake with any message imprinted and the best way to get around this issue is to promote those bakeries that do want equality in Northern Ireland for the LGBT+ community.


– C onscience Clause – Ashers, Equality Commission and the Courts – Group dedicated to stopping the conscience clause pass in Stormont


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