“Equality as an aim in itself through government action is doomed not merely to defeat but to totalitarianism.” So observed the Archbishop of Canterbury earlier this year at the Trinity Institute symposium ‘Creating the Common Good’. His context was wealth creation and disparity, and the needs and means of redistribution. But his principle holds for the extremist pursuit of all equality: as a political vision and civil imperative, it inclines toward totalitarian injustice because it denies liberty to difference.
The court ruling in the case of the ‘gay cake’ against the McArthur family and Ashers Bakery is really quite astonishing (if not at all surprising). It appears that by refusing to make a cake with a political slogan agitating for a change in the law of Northern Ireland to permit same-sex marriage, Ashers Bakery discriminated against Gareth Lee by on the grounds of his sexual orientation, despite the fact that they would have declined an order to make such a cake for a heterosexual. And so, once again, we see gay ‘hurt feelings’ targeting a Christian business, and a court ruling which diminishes religious liberty and freedom of conscience.
Ashers’ decision was never about the Gareth Lee’s sexuality (if the McArthurs ever knew it: can’t heterosexuals order pro-same-sex-marriage cakes? Isn’t it possible to be gay and opposed to the redefinition of marriage? Can’t those inclined to same-sex attraction choose to marry a person of the opposite gender?): it was about a political slogan which offended against their Christian beliefs. Are businesses now to be compelled to produce materials or convey messages which are incompatible with their owners’ deeply and reasonably held beliefs?
Peter Lynas, a former barrister and Northern Ireland director of Evangelical Alliance (and guest writer on this very matter), commented:
“This judgment will cause great concern for all those in business. It turns out the customer is always right and businesses have no discretion in deciding which goods and services to produce. The law rightly protects people from discrimination, but it has now extended that protection to ideas. While it’s absolutely vital to keep this case in perspective, this ruling will come as a shock to the vast majority of people who, polling shows, supported Ashers. While the case will hopefully be appealed, that will lead to a prolonged period of uncertainty and nervousness among business owners. It will no doubt lead to further calls to change the law.”
It is important to note that the McArthurs discriminated not only on the grounds of sexual orientation, but also on the basis of religion and political opinion. Presiding District Judge Brownlie was very clear on this in her ruling (which merits reading very carefully in its entirety). As Peter Lynas further observes:
“With respect to religion, a law designed to protect the belief of the customer or employee had been extended and used against a business owner. Mr Lee’s beliefs were not relevant to the decision not to produce the cake – they were and remain unknown. To extend the law to include the religious beliefs of the supplier is we believe a significant change in the law that will have wider implications. It seems that religion has been effectively banished from the commercial sphere. Even the right to freedom of religion under the European Convention of Human Rights could not save the McArthurs.”
“It is important to remember there was no mention of political opinion in the original letter of claim. The Equality Commission, which supports same-sex marriage and is by definition a political organisation, added this ground later. Will it now regulate which political opinions are allowed under equality law and which are unacceptable?”
And this is the very crux of the matter. We are dealing with ‘protected characteristics’ and political campaigns which agitate for a change in the law. What are the limits of these? If a gay man asks a Christian baker to make him a cake iced with the slogan ‘Abolish the Gay Age of Consent’, is the Christian baker now obliged by statute to become complicit in the propagation of pederasty? If a Christian man asks a Muslim printer to produce leaflets declaring ‘Jesus is Lord; Mohammed is a false prophet’, is the Muslim obliged by statute to become complicit in blasphemy?
How can it be, as District Judge Brownlie decrees, that the exercising of the Christian conscience must be restricted to ‘religious institutions’? How, then, is the Christian supposed to ‘walk in the spirit‘ (Gal 5:16) or ‘worship in spirit and in truth‘ (Jn 4:24)? Is our worshipping to be confined to Sunday church? Is our walking to be restricted by the walls of a ‘religious institution’?
If Joseph & Son had their carpenter’s shop not in first-century Nazareth but 21st-century Belfast, would they be obliged by statute to produce a wooden sign saying: ‘Support Gay Marriage’? If so, isn’t it clear that the law must now be changed so that people may not be coerced into supporting political causes to enact laws which offend against the religious conscience? The @HolyVote campaign is embryonic, but if there is to be no reasonable accommodation of religious belief, we are indeed being increasingly subject to a statist totalitarian equality tyranny.