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Monday, 19 March 2018

Open letter to current and would-be politicians

Dear Lyle Shelton, Cory Bernardi, Tony Abbott, et al,
As politicians, you are not responsible for the state of my ‘soul’: I alone am. Government is not there to tell us how to get to heaven or hell: that’s the business of religion. Government is there to ensure that you and I are able to take care of our ‘souls’ without unwanted interference of others who think they know better. Maybe you do know better, but that is my lookout. Government is there to provide for the many diverse personal beliefs, both existential and prescriptive, of our diverse society, subject to the need for each person to recognise the beliefs of others. Our secular government is based, not on the dictates of religion, but on the human rights agreed to after the world was devastated by wars, caused by those who wanted to brutally impose their race and religion on others.
Keep your religious views to yourself when making law or policy. Don’t deny me the right to act according to my human rights, and I won’t deny you the same freedom. That doesn’t mean you can demand that society accommodate your religious views by allowing you to discriminate against me. If you wish to participate in society, that means you act according to society’s principles which say that we can act according to our personal beliefs, subject to the agreed social principles of our democratic society. Don’t offer to bake cakes if you exclude those whose beliefs you disapprove of. Don’t set up business and exclude those who you don’t like. Don’t teach children to deride and rebuff those with a different 'label' to theirs.
If they think they know what is right, I respectfully suggest that anyone who seeks government in harmony with their religious beliefs should adduce reasoned argument (based on factual evidence, not hypothetical fears, speculation or vested intereststo support their view and seek to persuade the electorate that the proposed legislation or policy maintains a pluralist, secular democratic society.

Yours sincerely
Meg Wallace,
President, Rationalist Association of NSW

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Dying with Dignity: Read the Evidence

Image result for dying with dignity The major opposition to legalising medically assisted dying comes traditionally from religious institutions and individuals. Despite decreasing membership, sustained and ever-growing demand for the legal right to die with dignity, including the right to seek voluntary assisted dying (VAD), churches still retain great influence in the political world. Facilitating this influence is the use of the so-called “conscience” vote in parliament, more often than not used to impose the individual member’s personal views or the party’s policy, even in the absence of opposing views of the electorate.

Opponents’ views are often religiously-inspired although they may deny this and say they argue from fear of possible adverse social outcomes. They say they fear erosion of respect for the sanctity of life, which must be protected at all costs and/or of the medical profession, which vows to protect life, mistakes, that doctors cannot adequately assess a person’s capacity or autonomy to decide to seek VAD, and of a ‘slippery slope’ to wider and wider grounds for assisting people to die.

If that is the case, they should address the copious and extensive evidence refuting these fears from studies of jurisdictions that have legislated for VAD for years, indicating that safeguards work and ‘slippery slopes’ are not inevitable. To be valid, their opposition should be based on real evidence of abuse of the dying through unwanted or coerced hastening of death, rather than speculation and fearmongering.

The evidence of the effectiveness safeguards is easily accessible on the web. It includes peer-referenced, academic articles based on statistics and surveys. But opponents fail to address these, as they are non-existent. This makes their arguments hard to accept. If they want to convince us of their legitimacy, they could start, for example, with considering some wide studies that are cited in this article.

Firstly, for example they could consider that assistance to die is common

Despite the apparent illegality of VAD, and those who decry its morality, VAD happens frequently. Fear that legalisation of VAD will result in abuse is misguided, because it is lack of legalisation is likely to lead to abuse. Studies have shown that up to a third of physicians who have attended the dying have administered a drug with the intention of hastening death. The Catholic-generated ‘double effect principle (potentially lethal medication can be administered if the stated intention is to alleviate pain) has led to ‘ambiguity the in how physicians understand death hastening practices’[1] as highlighted by a large multinational survey of 1,478 Australian physicians:

·         7% complied with patient requests for euthanasia.
·         28% said they were willing to comply under certain conditions
·         66% said they would never comply.
·         77% reported withholding or withdrawing treatment
·         83% provided pain through analgesia with the probability or certainty of hastening death.

This indicates that physicians are performing these practices without patient consent, the authors conclude.


One study found that Australia had a higher rate of intentional ending of life without the patient's request than the Netherlands. Australian law has not prevented doctors from practising euthanasia or making medical end-of-life decisions explicitly intended to hasten the patient's death without the patient's request.[2]

Another researcher found that

‘death hastening practices, frequently at a clandestine level, continue unabated across Australian medical settings and by a multidisciplinary range of practitioners Such practices sometimes occur without patient consent (up to half the cases) and sometimes with nurses and others acting autonomously without instruction from doctors. Indeed, over one third (36.5%) of all Australian deaths are caused or hastened by medical end of- life decisions but over two thirds are subject to them.[3]

In New Zealand, a 2015 News/Reid Research poll showed 71% of respondents wanted the law changed with 24% opposed.[4] .New Zealand Parliament's largest-ever inquiry into VAD did not make any formal recommendations to the Government about whether VAD should be legalised, instead providing a summary of the arguments for and against assisted dying. This may be due to the fact that, ironically, the NZ Herald recently reported that between 75 and 80 per cent of the submissions were opposed to legalising voluntary euthanasia and the rest wanted a law change.[5]  Meantime, the recently elected Labour-New Zealand First Coalition government has made a commitment to hold a conscience vote in Parliament when votes on whether the issue of legalising VAD should be decided by referendum.

A study of 1,100 New Zealand GPs working in end-of-life contexts in New Zealand[6], found:
·         63% had made medical decisions in the previous 12 months that could actually hasten death;
·         5.6% (39) of deaths were consistent with physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia. ‘In '7 of these deaths doctors did not discuss their actions with the patient. ‘In other words, non-voluntary euthanasia occurred, and in 34 (87%) of the deaths palliative services were available’;
·         13.6% New Zealand physicians reported actions that were “partly” intended to hasten death and 50 (53%) of these did not discuss with the patient beforehand.
·         19%) withdrew or withheld treatment or increased medications to alleviate symptoms knowing it would probably hasten death.[7]

The Principle of Double Effect is a handy way of protecting those who hasten death intentionally or otherwise, impairing transparency and honesty, no matter what the doctor’s/nurse’s motivation.

In expressing my aspiration for VAD with a medical professor, I was told confidentially ‘Don’t worry, if you ever want assistance, you can come to me.’ He was surprised at my angry response that a) he was happy to act in this hypocritical clandestine way, with possible abuse of the system, and b) I was expected to accept that I had no right to request VAD, but should be dependent on chance access to it.

Why don’t opponents address the reality of this situation? Surely legislation can impose a layer of regulation and accountability at least more effective that current practise.

2 They could consider evidence showing legislative safeguards are adequate

Opponents argue that safeguards in the Bill cannot protect the vulnerable. Copious studies of the many safeguards in legislation elsewhere conclude they are adequate to prevent abuse, while providing autonomy, dignity and comfort in the face of an inevitable and unbearably painful death. The Supreme Court of British Columbia (Carter v. Canada 2012) considered extensive expert testimony on VAD legislation overseas both for and against VAD. The Supreme Court upheld its conclusion, finding that there was ‘no evidence that doctors cannot reliably assess a person’s competence, informed consent and non-ambivalence. There was no evidence of increased abuse of patients, carelessness, callousness, distrust of doctors or an inevitable ‘slippery slope’, even in the more permissive jurisdictions. As well, they found palliative care, which must be considered, often actually improved with such legalisation.
The Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into Life Choices[8], an extensive study tour in 2016 of jurisdictions legalising VAD considering evidence for and against VAD, found that ‘[T]he evidence is conclusive that assisted dying can be provided in a way that guards against abuse and protects the vulnerable in our community in a way that unlawful and unregulated assisted dying does not’ (p. xxviii).
Image result for dying with dignityI believe opponents would have to disprove this evidence to justify prohibiting VAD outright.
Such evidence and much more like it, however, is missing from consideration by those opposing VAD, making their arguments questionable and potentially misleading. Only when those who oppose this legislation can convince us that they are factually wrong will their case be worth considering seriously.

[1]            [Löfmark R, Nilstun T, Cartwright C, Fischer S, van der Heide A, Mortier F, Norup M, Simonato L, Onwuteaka-Philipsen BD: ‘Physician’s experiences with end-of-life decision-making: survey in 6 European countries and Australia’, BMC Med 2008, 6(4):1–8.]
[2]            Helga Kuhse, Peter Singer, Peter Baume, Malcolm Clark and Maurice Rickard End-of-life decisions in Australian medical practice MJA 1997; 166: 191
[3]            Steven A Trankle ‘Decisions that hasten death: double effect and the experiences of physicians in Australia’ BMC Medical Ethics 2014, 15:26
[4]            "Poll: Kiwis want euthanasia legalised". Retrieved 2016-01-18.
[5]            2 Aug, 2017 
[6]            Mitchell K, Owens RG: National survey of medical decisions at end of life made by New Zealand general practitioners. Br Med J 2003, 327:202–203, cited in Trankle, above.
[7]            Trankle P2.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017


Image result for human rightsThe adoption by nations of universal human rights arose from the vision of those who were appalled at the tyranny of arbitrary, belligerent state sovereignty with its mass persecution because of race, ethnicity, and political or religious beliefs. The final impetus came from the carnage of two world wars.

This gave inspiration to nations for a world-wide Human Rights revolution, by adopting  the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), following earlier human rights declarations by the US and France.

The UDHR is a political construct, setting out the principles for governments to implement these revolutionary ideas. It is a straightforward, universal expression of the view that whatever our personal characteristics and beliefs, our behaviour towards others should reflect the good in our human nature: mutual respect, value and consideration.

Before the UDHR was conceived, liberties, rights and favours applied only to people with the requisite status. More enlightened countries established civil liberties for all citizens. But these liberties could be withdrawn or changed if the government so chose, so people were dependent on the good will of their particular government.

Under the UDHR, for the first time every individual is defined, not through being the subject of a monarch or sovereign state, nor because of his or her legal, physical, mental, social, economic or any other status. Humanness is the sole defining characteristic. And governments were expected to adopt these rights in law.

Have you looked at the number of human rights pronouncements, based on the UDHR, adopted throughout the world lately? The globe is awash with Declarations, treaties, charters, and Conventions bearing lists of our Rights, including the right to freedom of 'religion or belief'. They form agreements by governments to implement the ‘revolution’.

Governments love signing on to them and declaring their intention to uphold them forever more. Every sovereign state in the world – 192 of them – have signed up to the UDHR as a condition of membership of the United Nations, including Zimbabwe, Burma, Syria, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and Iran. Notably absent is the Vatican (which calls itself a sovereign state) as it is a totalitarian Catholic theocracy. The UN also set up the mechanism for states to follow this in the Universal Covenants on Civil and Political Rights, whereby they undertake to adopt human rights in their domestic law, and breaches are adjudicated by the Human Rights Committee. This has been ratified by 169 states, and six have signed it without ratification.

This was indeed the stuff of revolution! It brought a whole new perspective to liberties. Human dignity, personal integrity and autonomy were declared to be essential to all human beings, regardless of who or where they are. These were not just ‘liberties’ (favours) but ‘rights’ (entitlements).
By recognising human rights, humanism is therefore committed to both the promotion and protection of these rights for all, as they represent the human values and needs we share with all humanity, regardless of diverse cultural and religious traditions. Despite the fact that humanists may reject belief in the supernatural basis of religious doctrines, they recognise the right of everyone to express or manifest a religion or belief in their personal lives, while maintaining human rights/humanist principles in community relations.

It is therefore important to keep in mind that all rights by their very nature rights involve duties on the part of someone else. These duties involve protecting everyone’s rights from obstruction by others so that individuals and governments must limit the practice of religious beliefs where they adversely affect such matters as public health and welfare, and unfairly restrict the right of others through unjustified discrimination.

The power of governments and interest groups under human rights is thus often limited. They now have an obligation to provide citizens with the rights they sign up to. They cede some of their power to the people, so while there is a widespread push for countries to recognise human rights that is not always convenient.

Here then is the rub: when you get down to the national level, governments are good at talking human rights, but they do not implement them. And why? Because they really don’t want to! Every nation in the world is guilty of breaching human rights to some extent, even those who commit to human rights in their constitutions – be it through prohibition, enforcement or the privileged treatment of race, ethnicity, political persuasion or particular beliefs in the interests of political expediency. Meantime, religious belief alone is a major cause of the mass human suffering, persecution and loss of life throughout the world.

Even when the pioneering world-shattering Universal Declaration of Human Rights was being drawn up, the evidence was there. States involved in drafting it were often more interested in preserving their historical customs, religions, power, prejudice and convenience, at the expense of ensuring truly genuine, equal enjoyment by all citizens of the rights that they were advocating.

We are part of a political revolution: one that is failing badly throughout the world. To bring about a humanist/human rights revolution much needs to be done. It involves more than seeking to convince others of our philosophical ideas and values. It calls for political action to challenge the widespread influence of those championing religious beliefs in our government’s policies and law-making. In Australia, pressing for abolishing prayers and ‘conscience’ votes in Parliament is critical to removing religious influence from government. Relevant action also involves campaigns for same-sex marriage, access to reproductive medicine and voluntary assisted dying legislation. Other breaches of humanist/human rights principles likewise need attention, the most prominent being the abhorrent treatment of refugees.

This is not to denigrate the importance of discussion communication, and celebration of humanism as a philosophy of life. These are also essential activities for the flourishing of this great legacy of the enlightenment.

I suggest, then, that as a life-stance, humanism is not solely a philosophy: it is also a political blueprint for decent, humanity-based living: a revolution that needs to be fought for.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Why do we have an ambassador to the Vatican?

The Government should explain why it maintains a diplomatic relationship with the Vatican and the associated expense on the taxpayer of a permanent ambassador, particularly when it is telling us how we need to cut back on expenses.

 The Vatican claims to be a sovereign state. This is open to debate. It was established by an agreement (the so-called Lateran Treaty) between Mussolini and the Pope in 1929, to further the interests of both parties. Mussolini wanted the support of the Catholic Church, the Pope  wanted to establish a means to encroach on nations around the world. See, for background to the Treaty

Let's look at the Lateran Treaty. Firstly, is it legally a treaty? Treaties are agreements between two or more nations. This was an agreement between a government and an internal organization. It initially did not have any international bearing whatsoever. The idea of the Vatican as a sovereign state in international law is, by all accounts, a fiction. Only dealings by various nations with the Vatican have kept the fiction alive, for whatever reason (and it can't be for international trade, military alliance or citizenship matters as these are non-existent features of the Vatican). Geoffrey Robertson examined the legality of Vatican statehood in much depth in The Case of the Pope, Penguin, 2010, p. 76.
The Treaty limits the Vatican to religious activities only. Article 24 says:
In regard to the sovereignty appertaining to it also in international matters, the Holy See declares that it desires to take, and shall take, no part in any temporal rivalries between other States, nor in any international congresses called to settle such matters, save and except in the event of such parties making a mutual appeal to the pacific mission of the Holy See, the latter reserving in any event the right of exercising its moral and spiritual power.
The Vatican is in breach of the Treaty in interfering in temporal matters of national politics, both in Italy and elsewhere, which it often does. The Pope and his cohorts frequently seek to influence by pressure the policies and practices of other countries. The Vatican enters into agreement concordats with governments resulting in Catholic church predominance over local law and the enjoyment of grants and other temporal favours. The Vatican sits on UN bodies (although it is not a full member of the UN), seeking to influence UN policies and projects. The Pope involves himself very much with temporal matters.
This ties in with the very purpose of the Vatican as set out in the preamble of the Treaty: the furtherance of the Vatican's 'mission', which is to spread the church's religious influence around the globe. Geoffrey Robertson points out that furtherance of a vested interest has been established as a reason for refusing recognition of other bodies as states in international law (The Case of the Pope, p. 76).
The simple fact is that the Vatican is not a State in the normally recognised meaning of that term. The Vatican has no permanent citizens, no trade relationship with other countries, no army. There is no civil consultative government structure, as government revolves around the Pope and is based on religious dogma, not civil political principles. The diplomatic relationship will presumably not revolve around such civil matters as mutual trade or defense interests: it will be influenced largely by the church's 'mission'  its interest in morality. According to Robertson, most dealings with the Vatican are carried out at the Italian embassy, just down the road from the Vatican.
Indeed, the Vatican is not a civil state, it is the headquarters of a religious body. Formal relationship with the Vatican is a formal relationship with a religious institution. Its purpose is, says the Lateran Treaty Preamble, to ensure its ‘absolute independence for the fulfillment of its exalted mission in the world’. As Roberson says, ‘Would the world recognise Mecca as a state if Saudi Arabia negotiated a Lateran-style treaty with its religious leader in order to further an extreme Wahabi “mission to the world”?’ (The Case of the Pope, p. 76).
In appointing the first fulltime ambassador to the Vatican, then PM Kevin Rudd said the aim was to ‘enable Australia and the Holy See to be able to work together on the great challenges we face in the world’ (Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney), 22/7/2008, News 3).
The Vatican rejects many basic human rights and democracy within its walls through the theocratic and absolutist power of the Pope. Like many religions, Catholic teachings oppose establishing a Bill of Rights, and questions personal autonomy, women's rights, gender rights and childrens' rights in carrying out its 'exalted mission'. It stands accused of being less than conscientious in dealing with a horrendous amount of child abuse. It erodes freedom of Belief itself through its deals with governments (such as concordats) seeking to influence their policies and legislation throughout the world.
Since when did the Australian people vote to share government with the Holy See? This undermines the separation of church and state, which is the hallmark of a secular society, which we are supposed to enjoy in Australia.
Besides, even if this theocratic tendency could be justified, an embassy in Rome is an awful waste of money. The Australian Embassy to Italy is just down the road. We do not need to bankroll the expense of accommodating and otherwise funding a fulltime government representative, and associated resources, to a religious organisation. Apart from the fact that it involves discrimination (what about other religions?) it seems to involve little for a fulltime, live-in appointee to do. The position was not considered to require a fulltime appointment before. Why, when the number of believers is steadily decreasing do we need one now?
Finally, does the appointment require a religious test? One cannot imagine a Muslim or (god forbid) an atheist being appointed. If so, the Australian Government may be in breach of s. 116 of our Constitution, which proscribes the application of a religious test for public office. Perhaps a legal challenge is warranted.
Therefore one must ask, is it appropriate for Australia to continue diplomatic relations with, and appoint an ambassador to, the Vatican, with the associated taxpayer expense and government alliance with that religious organisation? Ireland has ceased its diplomatic relationship with the Vatican,
We need to tell our government that we object to being required to funding this entanglement of state and religion.

Monday, 27 February 2017

‘Conscience Votes’ Jeopardise our Human Rights

Meg Wallace

In February 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada made a historic ruling on voluntary euthanasia.[1] 

It held that access to voluntary euthanasia is a basic human right. The Court declared that Canadian legislation prohibiting assisted suicide is invalid, as it is a violation of the right to life, liberty and security of the person, under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Canadian Charter reproduces the human rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (‘UDHR’). Australia is a signatory to the UDHR.

The Court pointed out that everyone has the right to make decisions concerning their bodily integrity and medical care. This principle allows a person with a grievous and irremediable medical condition to request palliative sedation, refuse artificial nutrition and hydration, or request the removal of life-sustaining medical equipment (they can also legally refuse nutrition and fluids). The Court held that prohibition of voluntary euthanasia interferes with this right to one’s bodily integrity and medical care, and thus ‘trenches on liberty’[2] It held that forcing people to endure intolerable suffering deprives them of their security of person according to the principles of justice, which are founded on a belief in the dignity and worth of every human person.[3] The alternatives, taking one’s own life prematurely when able to (often violently or dangerously), or suffering until death, are ‘cruel’.[4] The right to life, the Court said, is no longer seen to require that all human life be preserved at all costs.[5]

The existing law is inconsistent.

The Court pointed out that as the right to liberty and security of the person allows mentally competent individuals to refuse medical treatment, even where it is life-saving or life-preserving, prohibition of assisted dying constitutes ‘overbreadth’ of the law. This is because (1) it denies some individuals the right to liberty and security of the person, including autonomy in medical decision-making; (2) this denial is otherwise contrary to the general objective of the Canadian Charter, which is to ensure universal enjoyment of that right; and (3) this denial has no relation to the Charter’s objective, which is to establish that right for everyone. Outright prohibition of voluntary euthanasia, the Court found, is concerned instead with protection of specific societal interests, not the rights of the individual.

Societal interests are cited in advocating the prohibition of assisted dying – such as religiously-inspired opposition, the need to protect the vulnerable from exploitation, mistake or duress, or the reluctance of some physicians to be involved. These are consequential issues, that should be considered in determining how the right is to be implemented (that is, safeguards to prevent abuse of the vulnerable) but should play no part in influencing governments to deny the right itself, which is intended to be universal.

Societal interests are properly the consideration of safeguards
The Court accepted there are legitimate concerns to protect the vulnerable. It examined arguments of over 40 submissions from groups that both supported and opposed the prohibition of assisted dying. It also considered the administration of legislation in countries that permit it. As of October 2015, euthanasia is legal only in the Netherlands, Belgium, Colombia and Luxembourg. Medically assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, Germany, Japan, Albania and in the US states of Washington, Oregon, Vermont, New Mexico, Montana and California).[6] The Court found that none of the jurisdictions that have permitted assisted dying showed that physicians are unable to reliably assess competence, voluntariness, and non-ambivalence in patients, ensure informed consent, and prevent abuse. Indeed, the Court also found that comprehensive consideration of options, outcomes and safeguards involved where assistance in dying is available has meant that palliative care of the terminally ill actually improved in those jurisdictions.

Implications for ‘conscience votes’ against assisted dying
This judgment has important implications for legislators. It indicates that they have no business denying people their right to liberty and security. There is no room for a ‘conscience vote’ based on a politician’s personal religious or other life-stance to deny people their rights. The right to life ‘is no longer seen to require that all human life be preserved at all costs’.
This approach clarifies the appropriate nature of a ‘conscience vote’, at least in relation to voluntary euthanasia. Conscience votes are used as a cop-out when political parties are too timid to take a stand in fear of losing votes: they are sensitive to personal and religious interests. Legislators are there to act in the public interest, including protection of human rights. They should not deny rights established by the UDHR. They can develop, with their fellow party members, appropriate safeguards for preventing abuse, but rights must stand.
The reasoning of the Canadian Court is not irrelevant to the Australian justice system. The right to life, liberty and security of the person is established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which have both been ratified by Australia. Based on the reasoning of the Canadian Supreme Court, one can argue that there is similarly a safeguarded right to assisted dying in Australia.

What does the UN say on human rights and euthanasia?
The UN Human Rights Committee has suggested that laws allowing for voluntary euthanasia with appropriate safeguards, are not incompatible with States’ obligation to protect the right to life, which does not go so far as to require that life and health be advanced against the express wishes of those affected. It also considered voluntary euthanasia with appropriate safeguards was not inconsistent with the right to privacy, freedom of religion and belief, and freedom from cruel inhuman and degrading treatment.[7]

[1]            Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5
[2]            Ibid, [66].
[3]            Ibid, [81].
[4]            Ibid, [81].
[5]            Ibid, [63].
[7]               Australian Human Rights Commission, May 2016 Ethanasia, Human Rights and the Law, Issues Paper, 26.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Pat-a-Cake: should bakers bake me a ‘gay’ cake?

 Northern Ireland Court holds that baker's refusal to provide cake with same-sex decoration is discrimination. Here are the reasons why the judgment is right.
There has been an outcry from Christian groups at a Northern Ireland Appeal Court  ruling against the owners of a bakery who refused to decorate a cake with the message ‘Support Gay Marriage’. Once again, they claim, we are discriminated against and persecuted by being forced to act against our conscience. In the name of freedom of belief, they demand that the law be changed to allow them to practice their beliefs as they will.oppose the introduction of same-sex marriage (which not yet been legalised in Northern Ireland) as they believe that it is contrary to God’s law.
Had the Ashers ‘gay cake’ ruling gone the other way it would have seriously undermined equality lawThe Case
The McArthur family, owners of Asher Baking, a Northern Ireland business, refused to provide a cake for a LGBTI gathering with this image.
They claimed the requirement to provide the cake was forcing them to endorse same-sex marriage, breaching their right to freedom of conscience, and their act was not thus unlawful discrimination.
The trial judge rejected the McArthur’s claim, and this finding was endorsed by the Court of Appeal, thus refuting their allegation of persecution.
Was the message an ‘endorsement’ of same-sex marriage?

No, the judges declared. This was, it recognised, a message based on both religious and political conviction, but by providing the cake, the McArthurs themselves would not be ‘promoting and supporting a change in the law of Northern Ireland so as to enable same sex marriage’. They pointed out, for example, that people don’t believe that by a cake decoration for a customer the baker is intending to promote a football team or witches on Halloween. In fact, the Court said, ‘they would be doing no more than obeying the law and providing the Plaintiff with a service’. Indeed, by refusing to provide the cake, the McArthurs were discriminating in the provision of a service they were to provide equally to all potential customers.

Was refusal to provide the cake unlawful discrimination?
Yes, the judges said. As the court at first instance ruled that Ashers are not a religious organization; they are a bakery conducting a business for profit notwithstanding the owners’ religious beliefs, and ‘the Legislature, after consultation and consideration, has determined what the law should be’. It went on to explain the legal test of discrimination. Joshua Rozenburg, BBC legal commentator states it as follows:
...the correct comparison was not with a straight man who wanted a 'gay' cake, which Ashers would have refused. It was with a gay or straight person who ordered a cake celebrating traditional marriage - which the company would have supplied. (see here).
Similarly, a gay baker would be required by law to supply a cake with the words ‘support heterosexual marriage’. The law applies equally to and for all.
The judge determined that ‘the relevant anti-discrimination provisions were necessary in a democratic society and were a proportionate means of achieving the legitimate aim of protecting the rights and freedoms of the respondent. To do otherwise would be to 

…allow religious belief to dictate what the law is. The first and second appellants were entitled to continue to hold their genuine and deeply held religious beliefs and to manifest them, but this must be done in accordance with the law and that included not manifesting them in the commercial sphere if the manner of doing so was contrary to the rights of others.

The McArthurs are not deprived of their right to manifest their religion in their private life, nor of their right to free speech. But when it comes to their treatment of fellow human beings, they should respect the right of all individuals to equal recognition before the law. If you provide forum for the public to express views and beliefs, you should not discriminate in the messages you carry on the grounds of (legal) religious or other personal life-stance. 

Bakers are perfectly at liberty to refuse to fulfil an order for the cake with the pro-same sex marriage message, if they are to be non-discriminatory, they should also refuse one with a pro-opposite-sex marriage too. They should either make cakes with any religious, political, or other discriminatory message, or refrain from any such message at all. 

Otherwise, as has happened in the US as a result of the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby - Supreme Court case, religious organisations would be free to discriminate according to the (mainly religious) beliefs of their proprietors. That decision effectively extends what is a matter of personal conscience to constituting the policy of corporate enterprise, thus severely negating  the individual human  rights of individuals.

Are the McArthurs being ‘forced’ to act contrary to their beliefs? 

Well, no. They have options: (a) treat all those seeking wedding cakes with religious or political messages equally, (b) refuse to provide wedding cakes bearing any religious or political messages, or (c) cease making wedding cakes altogether. As a result of the Court decision, Ashers are now concentrating on birthday cakes, avoiding religious and political messages altogether.

The ruling is consistent with human rights and the public interest in the equal treatment of all.
This ruling, it is argued, accords with the UN interpretation of the right to have and manifest religious belief according to Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (‘UDHR’), to which all nations of the world subscribe. Article 18, based on the UDHR principle of liberal democracy, states that everyone has the right to have and ‘manifest’ a ‘religion or belief’. This statement is cited by those who would subject others’ rights to their personal conscience. But they ignore the critical exception to Article 18. That says that in the exercise of their rights, ‘everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society’. A similar exception is contained in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (‘ICCPR’), to which 175 nations also subscribe, requiring them to apply it to domestic law.
Anti-discrimination law is there to preserve the democratically accepted public interest in mutual recognition of everyone’s rights. As the National Secular Society points out, the ruling doesn’t mean Christians don't have rights. ‘It simply means their rights are not superior’ (see here).