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23 December 2016

A very costly cake – and what this means for Christian business owners

A very costly cake – and what this means for Christian business owners

Much ink has been spilt over a £36.50 cake, not all of it accurate. This article reflects on the case itself and the potential consequences.

First, a brief reminder of what actually happened. The McArthur family, who own Ashers bakery, run a successful family business. The bakery is named after the tribe of Israel who had many skilled bakers and created bread fit for a king. Gareth Lee, a gay rights activist, asked Ashers bakery to make a cake with the slogan: ‘Support Gay Marriage’ on it. The bakery, who had served Mr Lee before, were happy to sell him a cake, but not to promote a view contrary to their firmly held religious beliefs. They declined the order and Mr Lee complained to the Equality Commission who supported him in bringing a case against the bakery. The Christian bakers lost the case and a subsequent appeal. The Attorney General, who intervened in the case, has now indicated he will appeal to the Supreme Court. 

The court found that Mr Lee had been discriminated against based on his sexual orientation, though the bakers never asked or knew what it was. To make this case work the court had to engage in some interpretive gymnastics. The court would normally compare how a heterosexual customer was treated ordering the same cake, but here the judges compared a different customer and a different cake - a straight person ordering a cake saying: ‘Support straight marriage’. And the law that would include discrimination of other people associated with a gay person, has now been interpreted to include those associated with the very idea. 

The court rejected the bakers’ defense that to make the cake would have been against their religious beliefs. The law is extremely reluctant to compel speech and so ruled that icing a cake wasn’t speech and that writing this slogan was no different to supporting a football team. The ruling dehumanises work, failing to understand that for Christians our work is an act of worship. You can of course have your religious beliefs, just don’t try to manifest or live them out at work. A law designed to protect people with differing political views now appears to protect the views themselves. The court also found that the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’ is a political opinion, which is entitled to extra protection unique to Northern Ireland. 

So can a wedding photographer refuse to take photos or musicians decline to play at a same-sex ceremony? No, they must use their creative talents to ‘celebrate’ this event. Can a printer refuse to print a leaflet promoting abortion services? No, unless they have a policy saying they won’t do any political work, which could be a major limitation on their business. Can a Muslim website designer refuse to design a church website? No, unless they have a policy saying they won’t do any religious work, but this is highly restrictive as almost everything is informed by a set of beliefs. 

Those offering bespoke services will have to think carefully about the services they offer. One of the disappointing aspects of the decision in this case was the failure to wrestle properly with what ‘reasonable accommodation’ looks like. We live in a plural society and we must learn to live well together. The court decided that the onus was on the business to draft policies to protect itself. This seems unrealistic and an outcome that only helps lawyers. And anyway, it is unlikely anyone would have come up with a policy to cover a ‘gay cake’ – not that you can have such a thing. 

Leading gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell and others are also concerned about this case. He commented: “Ashers didn’t discriminate against the customer, Gareth Lee, because he was gay. They objected to the message he wanted on the cake.” He argued that the judgment opens a can of worms - should Muslim printers be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed? Or Jewish ones publish the words of a Holocaust denier? Or gay bakers accept orders for cakes with homophobic slurs? He pulled no punches: “What the court has decided sets a dangerous, authoritarian precedent that is open to serious abuse.” 

Going forward 

Our role as Christians is to seek the shalom of the place in which we find ourselves in exile. Eugene Peterson defines shalom as “seeking the dynamic vibrating health of a society that pulses with divinely directed purpose and surges with life transforming love”. 

I believe that the McArthur family acted as they felt compelled to by their faith, graciously declining an order supporting something sinful. They have conducted themselves with dignity throughout. I pray that they will be blessed for the stand that they have taken. But the sermon on the mount also challenges me to pray for Gareth Lee, that he too will be blessed. 

Our Speak Up resource reminds us of the incredible freedoms we have to share our faith in the public space and work place. When Jesus encountered the woman at the well, he met her with compassion, engaged with integrity, and moved towards redemption. The woman was so excited that she bought her friends to meet Jesus – we are always seeking these life-changing encounters.
 

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