Today and tomorrow (26-27th March 2015), the ‘gay cake’ case is being heard in Belfast. For those who haven’t been following the story, a family bakery declined an order for a cake bearing the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’ as it would be against their Christian beliefs to bake such a cake. The bakery, owned by the McArthur family, is named Ashers after one of Jacob’s sons blessed for his bread and delicacies. Gareth Lee, a gay rights activist who ordered the cake, is taking a case against the bakery claiming discrimination, and is supported by the Equality Commission in Northern Ireland.
Of course the case is not about a ‘gay cake’ – it has very little to do with sexuality or gay rights. The McArthurs did not know the sexual orientation of the customer. They would have turned down a heterosexual customer ordering the same cake. They discriminated against an idea, not a person, and this distinction is important. The law allows the first as an important part of a healthy democratic society, if for no other reason than that some ideas are bad. But you cannot generally discriminate between people, and rightly so.
However, the Equality Commission has alleged that Ashers are not only guilty of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation but also on the grounds of religion and political opinion. It is these latter grounds that may prove more problematic in the Ashers case. The Commission is suggesting that views on gay marriage, which is not legal in NI, equate to political opinions. The irony is that the Commission, a supposedly neutral quango, states on its website that it supports the introduction of legislation permitting same-sex marriage in NI. The Commission therefore has political opinions and is far from neutral on this matter. In fact, they appear to be actively policing the views of others.
It is reported that the fact that the McArthur family’s stance was motivated by their faith was enough for the Commission to make this a case of religious discrimination as well. The religion of the customer was irrelevant to their being served, so it is difficult to see where the discrimination is. If this ground succeeds it would seem that a baker who declined a cake for non-religious reasons would be legally entitled to do so, while a baker who declined for faith reasons would be guilty of an offence.
Equality is important, but it must be held in tension with rights and responsibilities and in the context of the much richer notions of dignity and justice. When equality becomes the sole lens through which a situation is viewed, distortions like the Ashers case can occur.
The question is whether everyone’s freedom of conscience, religion and belief is more important than any one person’s right not to be offended. Put another way – can you force someone to express an opinion they disagree with? ComRes have conducted polling in Northern Ireland for the Christian Institute who are supporting the case. It found that 90% of respondents agree that equality laws should be used only to protect people from discrimination and not to force people to say something they disagree with.
This case is not about special protection for Christians. If it is lost, conscience and religion will have been effectively banished from the public square. The Equality Commission would decide which political and religious views are acceptable and which are not. The Chief Commissioner said last week that Christians should “either look at the law or maybe that (baking) is not the business they should be in”. His suggested solution that Christians should effectively stop being printers, florists or bakers is very worrying.
Finally, as the case heads into the courtroom, it gives us a chance to reflect on how we should exercise our conscience in all areas of business – from the living wage to ethical supply chains. Towards the end of his life, the late John Stott grew concerned about selective discipleship – “choosing those areas in which commitment suits us and staying away from those areas in which it will be costly”. If Jesus is Lord, He is Lord of all and we don’t get to pick and choose the areas in which we will submit to His authority.