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Saturday, July 12, 2014

Gay discrimination case is no cakewalk

DID you know that Bert and Ernie were a couple? It’s amazing what can be learnt on a fair to middling July week in the throes of the silly season.
For one particular middle-aged generation, Bert and Ernie loomed large in their childhoods. The pair were staple characters in Sesame Street, the great children’s television series of the 1970s.
They were an odd couple for kids, Ernie tall and geeky, Bert short and cheeky. They were funny guys, whose banter included the odd bit of education, which made the programme a winner across the developed world.
Turns out the lads are gay icons. Maybe I’ve led a sheltered life, but cursory research in the last few days has gleaned that this has been so for some time. (Et tu, Big Bird?)
Anyway, the pair popped up in a controversy over Christian cakes and gay marriage during the week.
Asher’s bakery in Co Antrim styles itself a Christian bakery. Its name is taken from a verse in Genesis which says, “Bread from Asher shall be rich and he shall yield royal dainties.” The company was formed in 1992, has six outlets in the North, employs 62 people and is run with a religious fervour.
“We are Christians and our Christianity reaches to every point in out lives, whether that’s at home or in the day-to-day running of the business,” the general manger Daniel McArthur told reporters last week.
It’s an interesting concept. God knows, there’s a distinct lack of Christianity in the increasing number of businesses that believe it’s acceptable to pay less than a living wage to workers, but that’s for another day.
Those who want to bring spiritual beliefs into their work tend to get involved in areas like teaching, or communicating, or dedicating themselves to helping people on the margins. Baking is not something you might ordinarily associate with devotion to a higher power, unless every order is regarded as a potential feast of Cana
But so what? We live in an allegedly tolerant society, both here and north of the border, so whatever floats your boat should be of no concern to anybody else.
God, and his offspring, do carry some baggage when they turn up in the workplace. What, for example, if the best baker between here and Rome applied for a job in Asher’s, but confessed that he was a strict adherent of Buddhism? Would it be legitimate to discriminate against him based on his beliefs? Surely not. No defence could be advanced that the fruits of his labour would be inferior because they were baked with hands that knew not Christ.
The current matter concerning Asher’s involved alleged discrimination, not of a potential employee, but of a cake. The bakery received an order its management felt unable to fulfil as it was contrary to the company’s ethos.
A cake was requested with specifications that it include images of Bert and Ernie with their arms around each other, and a printing of the slogan “Support Gay Marriage”, along with a logo for a Belfast based gay, bisexual and transgender organisation.
Asher’s said no can do.
“We thought that this order was at odds with our beliefs, it certainly was in contradiction with what the Bible teaches,” Mr McArhur said last week.
Get up the yard, said Northern Ireland’s Equality Commission.
It confirmed that it had received a complaint from the party who placed the order, and it has written to Asher’s. The bakery could face prosecution for allegedly being in breach of the Equality Act, which deals with the provision of goods and services.
“In this case the commission has granted assistance to the complainant, and has written to the company concerned on his behalf,” a commission statement read.
“The commission will consider any response before taking further action.”
The first matter arising is why the order was placed with Asher’s. Of all the bakeries, in all the towns, across all the North, and this supporter of gay marriage had to walk into the one who rejects the whole concept of Adam and Steve.
Is it that Asher’s has an unrivalled reputation for producing scrumptious products? Or was somebody just looking for a fight?
Then, there is the subject matter. The bakery refused to construct a slogan supporting gay marriage. What if the request was to impose words like “Support abortion services”? Would refusal to do so constitute possible discrimination against those who are pro-choice?
The commission’s position would infer that it believes it is now discriminatory to oppose gay marriage. Logically, this infers that those opposed to legalising the union are homophobic. Is that fair?
Like it or not, there are those who adhere to a strict interpretation of their religious beliefs which includes the tenet that sex should only be engaged between a heterosexual couple married in the Church.
Ok, in today’s world that sounds bonkers to most of us. Practicalities have ensured that the vast majority who harbour those beliefs have given up the ghost on trying to steer society away from pre-marital sex.
In fact, it is quite obvious that most of the strict adherents see gay marriage as the last outpost on which to have their beliefs superimposed on society at large.
Opinion polls show that they are out of step with the majority of the public, who are in favour of gay marriage.
At this stage of the evolution of human rights, it would appear to many among us to be common sense to legislate for it.
Yet, what now appears to be popping up in incidents like the gay cake is a level of intolerance for anybody who still opposes the move. Debate around the Pantigate controversy hit a similar theme. The intolerance that once targeted people over their sexuality is now being exercised, in some quarters, against those who have taken a stand based on their religious beliefs.
Some of this can be attributed to the natural order of a backlash.
Gay people were the subject of appalling treatment down through the years. That intolerance of diversity is even now not fully eradicated. The sex-obsessed prerogative of the Catholic Church in this country exacerbated the discrimination.
Now that the tide has gone out on the Church’s influence, and with the rapid colonisation of middle ground opinion in favour of gay marriage, intolerance to any opposition is a growing danger.
Asher’s bakery should not be subjected to threats from a commission allegedly concerned with equality. Taking the company on for refusing to bake a cake with what is a political slogan does a disservice to fighting discrimination in all its guises.
South of the border, it would be a mistake for gay marriage campaigners to allow intolerance against opponents to fester. In what is still a largely conservative society, middle ground opinion is fickle.
A referendum on the issue is pencilled in for next year, and the graveyard of defeated amendment campaigns is littered with the hubris of those who believed it was gong to be a cakewalk.

Let’s be careful out there.

Michael Clifford

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Barry Clifford: A Fatal Conscience; A True Story

The farm was the jewel in the neighbourhood, the talk of the nearby parishes, and John had worked it for years with his bachelor uncle Tom and it was now his. He had promised himself that it would be a shrine of sorts to his beloved uncle who had recently passed, walking where he had walked, tending to what he had tended, loving what he had loved for that man had showed as much love to him as did his own parents. He would start Monday.

His wife Mary was happy for him for this was who John was and ever wanted to be, and he now had the biggest back garden of 100 acres to do it beside their small home. She would help him too for time was plenty and it had always been just the two of them. What neither of them knew that time was running out fast for John.

It was the first message of pain to his head when he knew all was not well. This was a different pain, like needepoints being pushed violently into his temple, and as they pushed he screamed with agony. The long bedside vigil lay ahead in hospital for everyday he twitched and roared Mary would be there. The days she could not come others came plus one.

This one called Jack came regularly, and like a serpent scenting prey, each day he felt closer to it. He brought grapes, oranges, and a magazine until one evening he came with another man and with him a will. The tumour had left only two fully working parts in John and that was his writing hand, and had not given reason to doubt his other, his mind, that people would not be any less in their dealings an truthfulness than he would have been. He was wrong. John signed that will, believing that he was signing a right of way for trespass on his land. In many ways he had done just that for the farm was now in full ownership of the man called Jack.
John died soon after.

Jack had moments of empowerment later, though fleeting. His farm was 200 acres and now it was 300. Two counties could be seen from its highest point. In the pub he bragged about what he had done and how he had done it. The few friends he had left would soon go, what family he had known followed. No one would talk to him and eventually the pub would not serve him or the grocer too.

The heavy drinking at home was his lowest point under the old clock, ticking out its leadened sound reminding him 60 times every hour about what he had done. In desperation he soon went to the widow woman to offer back the farm. As she screamed at him, she slammed the door in his face, outraged to the depths of her being to know that he would have dared to call upon her. Stunned, he finally skulked away as the heavy rain beat down upon him and the echoes of her screams followed him.


That night he drank the last fatal cocktail of animal tranquilser and whiskey that was believed afterwards to be the only act of decency that he had ever done in his life. It was an act from a fatal conscience. 

Barry Clifford