Hard cakes make bad laws
To save you reading my essay on the Ashers Baking Company case, here’s a good opinion from Paul Coulter. But I still think I have something to add…
Update: Useful summary video from Evangelical Alliance post the court hearing https://vimeo.com/123653742 (embed isn’t working for some reason).
Ashers Baking Company in Northern Ireland is going through a rough patch because it refused to decorate a cake according to a customer’s wishes.
Those are the plain facts, but Northern Ireland, like most places is complicated.
A few more facts are that the cake was ordered for Queerspace for an event for International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, specifically the cake was to display the message “Support Gay Marriage”. Ashers Baking Company is owned and run by the McArthur family who are Christians who believe a marriage should only be for one man and one woman [edited 2016–11–07 to rephrase for accuracy]. There are a few more facts listed here by the Christian Institute (which is providing support for the McArthurs). I certainly don’t claim to know all the facts. Please use the comments to provide any other facts.
Partly due to Northern Ireland having a history of religious and political discrimination and partly due to the UK Human Rights Act, there is a governmental organisation called the Equality Commission that works to ensure that Northern Ireland’s laws regarding equal access to employment, goods and services are carried out.
I must first say, that I think the Northern Ireland Equality Commission is a worthwhile organisation. Northern Ireland is a good example of a place where people sometimes need force of law to nudge them together, even if they don’t necessarily make friends, in the hope that at least they’ll no longer be enemies.
Gareth Lee of Queerspace, after being told that Ashers Baking Company would not provide a cake decorated with the requested design, took the matter up with the Equality Commission.
Taking the Equality Commission’s stance at face value (I’m not a lawyer), that they had a legal obligation to take this case, I’m not sure what any remedy should be. A judge/jury would be better placed to decide if compensation is necessary beyond simply refunding the person who placed the order. The organisation, Queerspace, which wanted the cake was still able to get one that was suitable from another supplier. As far as I know, there is no conspiracy among bakers to blacklist clients. In fact there are probably other bakeries run by Christians who do support homosexual marriage who would gladly have provided it, possibly free of charge.
But that is one case and it should be heard on its own merits to see how the law will be applied.
However, Northern Ireland has a large and vocal conservative Christian population that fears this is a slippery slope. Northern Ireland also has bit of a rebellious streak such that government isn’t always trusted and that the government has gone too far to force “equality” on the populace. And there’s the fear inherent in many people of being forced to conform to something they don’t believe in. These things together have got a few of the statelet’s politicians proposing a new law or an amendment to existing equalities law providing a so-called “conscience clause” that would allow people to refuse to provide goods or services for certain reasons, particularly religious convictions.
Personally I believe that tradesmen, artists, bakers, professionals or whoever should have a right not to provide a good or service. Then again that right needs to be set against everyone else’s and this is where things get messy.
Law is needed to keep everyone on a playing field, even if it isn’t level, but law is a blunt instrument. Some will suffer and some will benefit. The law should certainly be framed to be level, but we must ask ourselves “who should suffer?”
While the current situation may enable a “reverse Boycott” forcing people to provide services they would otherwise refuse to provide, it is also the case that a “conscience clause” would have to be extremely well drafted to prevent abuse. In that case I don’t believe a conscience clause would end up being any more liberal than the current situation because the government would still end up defining how people could conduct their business.
My view is that we must live according to Peter’s command to the early Christian church:
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.