Freedom of Religion

Ashers Bakery ‘gay cake’ appeal judgment: 11% of Evangelical Christians haven’t got a clue about religious liberty

It was very tempting to go with the affirmatory ‘89% of Evangelical Christians support freedom of religion’, which would have been the wholesome, encouraging, Christian thing to do, right? But the five per cent who do not is actually rather disappointing. And the further six per cent who don’t give a damn either way is disturbing. It makes one wonder if they are Evangelicals at all, or whether they grasp the fundamental imperative of freedom of religion which is the fons et origo of all our liberties. What sort of Christian opposes or doesn’t care about the freedom to proclaim the gospel or walk in spirit and in truth?

The context is an Evangelical Alliance survey ahead of the judgment today in the case of Gareth Lee vs Ashers Bakery – the notorious case of the ‘gay cake‘ and previous court judgment which constituted ‘equality tyranny‘ – which was duly and necessarily appealed on the basis of freedom of religion and freedom of political expression, not to say common-sense and natural justice.

By way of background, the McArthur family, who own Ashers Bakery, run a successful family business. They make lots of nice cakes. Gareth Lee, a gay rights activist, asked Ashers Bakery to make him a cake with the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’ iced on it. Ashers were happy to sell Mr Lee a cake, but not to promote a view contrary to their firmly-held religious beliefs (not to mention contrary to the law of the land). When they ultimately declined his order, Mr Lee went to the Equality Commission who supported his claim alleging discrimination. At first hearing in the County Court, Ashers Bakery was found to have discriminated against Mr Lee on all three grounds of the claim – sexual orientation, religious belief and political opinion. The Attorney General intervened in the Appeal case, raising issues about the ECHR compatibility of the very legislation on which the initial findings were made. The judgment from the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal is due today.

If it goes against Ashers Bakery, the bell tolls for freedom of religion. The loss of any liberty diminishes us because it is the essence of liberal democracy. But the loss of the freedom to exercise the religious conscience is particularly apocalyptic. Ashers did not decline to sell Mr Lee a cake on the grounds of his sexuality; they declined to make a cake with a slogan which sinned against their conscience, seared by the Holy Spirit. They would have refused to make this cake if the customer had been heterosexual, bisexual, pansexual or asexual. Mr Lee’s sexuality was irrelevant to Ashers: it was the religio-political slogan which, they felt, crossed that threshold between moral orthodoxy and heresy, and so Mr Lee’s order, in all conscience, had to be declined.

Problems with beliefs and disputes about doctrine have existed since the beginning of divine revelation. Questions and uncertainties abound in St Paul’s writings: he urges believers time and again to hold fast to the traditions which he taught them, and stresses the importance of what he says in his letters to the extent that those who do not accept his teachings should be solemnly warned and disciplined. There were false teachings by false prophets who were teaching doctrinal error with appeals to Paul’s own authority. The confusion and misapprehension then was a battle between Judaisers and Gnostics: now it is between Bible-believing Christians and Post-Christian Truthers; between forms of moral truth and autonomous freedom.

Should a Christian printer not be free to refuse an order to produce flyers with the slogan ‘Abolish the Gay Age of Consent’? Should he not be free to decline to print posters declaring ‘Abortion is cool’ or ‘Jesus is a Myth’? Should a gay printer be forced to produce flyers with the slogan ‘Homosexuality is an abomination’? Should the Muslim printer not be free to refuse an order to produce posters declaring ‘Mohammed is a False Prophet’? Should the Sikh cake-maker not be free to refuse to bake a cake saying ‘Langar food is shit: come to the mosque and eat halal’? How can the law possibly oblige the faithful religious believer to become complicit in pederasty, blasphemy or the propagation of evil? How can the state justify coercing the transgression of conscience? If your Christian brothers and sisters counsel you to avoid the way of the wicked and, indeed, warn you of the inevitable consequences of continuing in it, are you not then more guilty if you persist in your rebellion?

The Evangelical Alliance is the largest and oldest body representing the UK’s two million Evangelical Christians. They carried out their survey during August and September (of 1,208 Evangelicals as part of a regular series on the beliefs and actions of Evangelical Christians) in which they found overwhelming support for Ashers Bakery; that Christians who run businesses should be able to choose what they print, publish or put on a cake. In this survey, they were asked whether: “A business should have the right to refuse to print, publish (or write in icing on a cake) a message with which it does not agree.”

89 per cent of Evangelical respondents agreed, with 56 per cent agreeing strongly. But six per cent opted for the fence-sitting neither agree nor disagree, and five per cent disagreed.

So 133 out of the 1,208 surveyed believe that Christians should be forced by law to act against their consciences or don’t care. Extrapolate that to the entire Evangelical representation: 220,000 of the UK’s two million Evangelical Christians believe that Joseph & Son Carpentry in first-century Nazareth should be obliged by Herodian statute to produce a wooden sign saying ‘All paths lead to God’ or ‘Temple Mount: money-changers welcome’.

Former barrister Peter Lynas, director of Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland, said: “Ashers Bakery would not have made this cake for anyone, gay or straight. And yet they are being accused of treating one group of people differently than another. A law that was originally designed to protect a minority is being used by the new majority to force their views onto others. What was at first presented as being about protecting the LGBT community against state discrimination, is now seeking to use state power to punish those who refuse to support same sex marriage. This is plainly wrong.”

And wrong it most certainly is. Bible-believing Evangelical Christians are locked in a battle. It is not a friendly discussion over a nice cup of tea, but a life and death conflict between truth and lies; freedom and oppression; salvation and damnation. Between those who follow Christ faithfully, and those who claim the name of Christ to perpetuate their own truth and reality. If a Christian may no longer sustain a Christian ethos in his own company, he may no longer walk in spirit and in truth. As William Tyndale noted in 1525:

Evangelion (that we call the gospel) is a Greek word; and signifieth good, merry, glad and joyful tidings, that maketh a man’s heart glad, and maketh him sing, dance and leap for joy.

It is hard to dance and leap for joy if the state coerces everyone to orthodox utterances and rigid bodily movements. The ‘gospellers’ or early evangelicals based their faith on ancient creeds and traditional confessions, and were effusive about their life of faith. True Evangelicals still are: it is a shared mission in which Christ is victor and doctrinal fidelity is the supreme value. Together they contend against the secular spirit and resist the tidal wave of modern sentiment or zeitgeist.

We cannot subject the Bible to state orthodoxy, or the Christian conscience to perpetual cries for ‘tolerance’. That 11 per cent of Evangelicals believe that we should so or do not care is testimony to the abysmal lack of discernment in some churches, and the woeful teaching from some pulpits. They may yet be Christians, but genuine Christianity is about living in love and unity, and that demands acceptance of diversity. If 11 per cent of Evangelicals don’t accept that a Christian baker ought to be free to refuse to participate in evil or to propagate that which they consider wrong or bad, what on earth do they gasp of sin, grace or salvation?