Dr Michael Wardlow, Chief Commissioner of The Equality Commission Northern Ireland, recently submitted an article to the Business Newsletter in which he outlines how the outcome of the Ashers gay cake row will affect businesses and services in Northern Ireland.
The Chief Commissioner states that it is “understandable that people in many different types of business might be concerned about what the implications are” and that the Commission has already dealt with a “number of queries” regarding these implications.
Dr Wardlow sought to clear up any confusion surrounding the details of the court’s decision and the uncertainty that some businesses are faced with regarding equality legislation.
“First, the decision has not changed or expanded the law. The court’s judgement confirmed the legal position which the Equality Commission has always held and which it has always used as the basis for our advice to service providers and employers” he said.
The Equality Commission’s Chief Commissioner went on to outline and elaborate on the equality legislation and how it is and will be enforced.
“Businesses operating in the commercial sphere, providing services to the public, cannot discriminate against people on any of the grounds covered by anti-discrimination law in Northern Ireland governing the provision of goods, facilities and services to the public. Those grounds are disability, gender, race, religious belief and political opinion, and sexual orientation. Consultation on the extension of the anti-discrimination laws on age to cover goods, facilities and services is being prepared by OFMDFM and is expected to be legislated later in this mandate.
“The issues in the “cake” case involved the grounds of sexual orientation and religious belief and political opinion. The judge was satisfied from the evidence that the order for the cake was refused because the bakers took the view that the message on it conflicted with their views on sexual orientation and their religious and political views on a campaign to change the law on marriage. Accordingly she found that their decision was discriminatory under the laws covering these grounds.
“Some of the commentary around this decision has posited extreme and provocative scenarios which, it is claimed, would pose insoluble problems for business people, particularly those with deeply held religious views. It is important to remember that the judgement spelt out clearly the limits of what the law requires. The judge found the bakery’s refusal to be unlawful, because they were contracted on a commercial basis to bake and ice a cake with entirely lawful graphics, and to be paid for it. She was clear that what the bakery was asked to do did not require them or their bakery company to support, promote or endorse any viewpoint.
“For any business it will be a help for them to be clear and open about what goods facilities or services they offer to the public, just as they should have clear policies and procedures in employment matters. All business people make decisions on what they do or do not supply, usually on straightforward commercial grounds. Their policy can make it clear if there are services or goods they do not supply, but these should not be defined in such a way as to be discriminatory on any of the protected grounds.
“The Equality Commission has always engaged extensively with businesses, large and small, providing advice on equality law, how to ensure businesses comply with it and what measures they can take which will help to address potential problems. We will be continuing this work and will be happy to give guidance to any businesses concerned by the discussions and misleading interpretations which have arisen around this particular judgement.
In another response from Dr Wardlow on investigative news and analysis website, The Detail, the Commissioner said that constructing “hypothetical scenarios” arising from Judge Isobel Brownlie’s decision would be “neither helpful nor enlightening.” He warned that these scenarios will only serve to “create confusion and suggest that the law as it stands elevates one set of rights against another.”
“The balance between rights already exists within our current equality law, a fact confirmed in the judgment” he wrote.
The message from the Equality Commission on the Ashers ruling ruling is that it was a fair and just decision. The Commission also makes it clear that people have nothing to fear or worry about with regards to equality legislation. Nothing has changed. The laws won’t be enforced more stringently or lead to an outbreak of people of the “Jedi” religion (yes it’s real) claiming to have been discriminated against for not being allowed to carry a light sabre into Tesco’s. Things will go on as they are.