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04 May 2018

Battle for religious freedom: a piece of cake?

Battle for religious freedom: a piece of cake?

Image credit: The Christian Institute

Stuart Bothwell is mission coordinator and Lauren Agnew is research assistant at Northern Ireland Evangelical Alliance.

There's been a lot of talk about Ashers Bakery (Ashers) and Belfast's 'gay cake' over the last number of years. There has been even more talk about the icing (or lack of icing) on that cake.

Ashers is a Christian bakery owned by Colin and Karen McArthur. The bakery name itself is taken from the Bible: Asher was a tribe of Israel, which had many skilled bakers, and created bread fit for a king.

In 2014, Gareth Lee, a gay rights activist, placed an order for a cake to be decorated with the slogan 'Support Gay Marriage'. He also wanted to have the logo of organisation QueerSpace and a photo of Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie printed beside it. Mrs McArthur processed the order and issued a receipt.

She discussed it with her husband later that evening, and together they decided that as a Christian business, they could not make a cake that supported same-sex marriage. To make the cake would go against their deeply-held religious belief; their refusal was an objection of conscience.

The McArthurs did not know Mr Lee's sexual orientation when they refused the order and they had served him before. They didn't discriminate against a person; they objected to the message of the cake. Mrs McArthur subsequently spoke to Mr Lee and explained they couldn't fulfil the order, and that she should not have accepted it to begin with. Mr Lee was given a full refund.

In March 2015 Mr Lee and the Equality Commission NI brought a discrimination case against Ashers and in May 2015, the District Court found that Ashers Baking Company had breached equality laws, directly discriminating against Gareth Lee on the grounds of sexual orientation, religion and politics. Ashers were ordered to pay damages. The decision was also upheld by the Court of Appeal in May 2016. However, given the importance of this case when it comes to religious freedom, Ashers took their appeal further, to the UK Supreme Court.

As I sat in the Supreme Court hearing this week, it became clear that what seemed to be a discrimination case was in fact a case about 'compelled speech', forcing the McArthurs to produce a message against their beliefs. 

The reality is that it wouldn't matter who was coming to Ashers bakery; the fact remains that they would not, and could not, have made a cake with 'Support Gay Marriage' iced on it for anyone, regardless of their sexuality, religion or ethnicity. Ashers bakery could not ice this cake for anyone because the slogan went against their religious beliefs. As was said at the Supreme Court hearing, "Their difficulty was in the content of the cake, not the characteristics of the customer."

As it stands, this case is set to create a precedent that all businesses, not just Christian businesses, can be forced to produce something which goes against what they believe.

Peter Tatchell, a prominent gay rights activist, acknowledging the widespread repercussions this case could have, gave his support to Ashers, pointing out, "It is an infringement of freedom to require businesses to aid the promotion of ideas to which they conscientiously object."

This case is therefore of extreme importance when it comes to religious freedom and the right to conscientiously object. Freedom of religion needs be universal in a free and fair society, yet this case highlights that instead it's compelled speech that become universal if the Supreme Court upholds the judgment against Ashers.

As we reflect on the Ashers case and our response to it, there are two key themes to think about.

Firstly, as Christians, we are to always embody and express the significance of Genesis 1:27: "So God created mankind in His own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them." Every human being is a divine image-bearer, marked by the wonder and mystery of the imago dei. Each interaction we have with another human being must seek to recognise and honour the dignity of that person. 

As Christians we must always treat another person with respect and value. Discrimination against people is always wrong. But, and it is an important but, discrimination laws protect people not messages, and this case is about the message.

Despite how this case has been perceived by some circles, we as the people of God must continue to approach every human interaction by recognising the dignity of one another.

Secondly, it's easy for our confidence to be knocked. As cases like Ashers hit the courts and difficult stories hit the headlines, it's tempting for us as Christians to circle the wagons. However, we continue to live in a society where we as Christians can be open about our faith, pray with others, share the good news, and allow the vision of the kingdom to influence us as we seek the flourishing of the common good. Yet even more than that, we live in an age where the One mistaken for a gardener by the tomb is seated on the throne, declaring: "Behold, I am making all things new." (Revelation 21:5)

Full of His love and empowered by His Spirit, today we can choose to confidently partner with Jesus as He establishes His kingdom here.  

Image: The Christian Institute