On Monday, judges in Northern Ireland upheld a ruling that a Christian-run bakery had discriminated against a gay customer by refusing to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan. Judge Isobel Brownlie denied the appeal of Belfast-based Ashers stating she accepted that they had “genuine and deeply held” religious views, but the business was not above the law.
It’s a victory for gay rights and anti-discrimination lobbies throughout the UK, but it has also sparked a greater conversation about the rights of religious people to practice their faith within the laws of the country they live.
To be honest Monday’s verdict seems obvious to me. If you’re conducting business for profit in a country where certain laws are in place, you’re simply not allowed to refuse service to people based on sexual preference. Having said that, I fully understand that the moral quandaries relating to religion and law are both vast and murky.
I want to be clear. I do not think the family who own Ashers are bad people. I don’t think they’re necessarily hateful and it would be lazy to simply label them as homophobic. There are a lot of grey areas in this case that open up interesting discussions about our entitlement to freedom of opinion, freedom of expression and the right to act on deeply held beliefs.
Ashers stated that their refusal to serve the plaintiff Gareth Lee wasn’t about the fact the customer was gay, it was the political message they could not condone. They wouldn’t have printed that slogan for anyone, gay or straight. Similarly, they would have refused orders with homophobic language – they wouldn’t even have accepted swear words!
Here’s where my issue with Ashers begins, because the comparisons just don’t add up. For a start, saying you’d serve a gay person whilst upholding the belief they don’t deserve as many rights as you is problematic from the go.
But beyond that to the further reasoning offered by Ashers on other slogans they would not print…homophobic language is hate speech. Swearing – although I’d raise an eyebrow at the thought the word ‘fuck’ is really that heinous – exists in itself as negative and aggressive behaviour. But the fight for gay marriage? That’s equality! That is literally the fight for the acceptance of love.
Refusing to print a message of positivity and inclusion because of your own bigoted ideas of right and wrong…that’s discrimination. Comparing pro-gay slogans and anti-gay hate speech? That’s not ok.
“But,” I hear you cry, “to some people gay marriage is hateful! It’s an attack on the sanctity of the marital bond, on something so fundamental to the faith of millions that to them, to endorse it would be a paragon of blasphemy. To force them to endorse it is discrimination too!”
And I get it. I really do. When you live your entire life based on a set of principles that have been passed down from generation to generation over thousands of years and even been enshrined in law, your religion doesn’t feel like opinion, it’s Gospel. Literally. And anything that goes against that is not only discrimination but dangerously immoral. The ongoing march towards the equality of LGBT people must seem like a slap in the face.
It’s tough, because your views are so securely set in the foundations of a higher power that dictates your morality, you are absolutely certain of their correctness. But at the end of the day they are just views. And mine? Mine are based on science, on the belief that fundamentally all humans are equal and deserving of the same respect and rights regardless of their gender, sexuality, or what colour skin they have.
But you don’t believe your views are just views. You think yours trump mine.
So we’re at stalemate. We’re on opposite sides of the coin. Secular vs religious beliefs. I can’t believe anyone could see the word equality and think it’s on the wrong side of morality and you can’t believe I might be totally ok getting married to another woman.
We have a problem because neither of us are going to change our mind and yours go so far beyond political they enter the supernatural. Anything I try to say that might reason with you will fall at the feet of the Lord and debate gets quite difficult when one half of the discussion is not of this world.
But even with your long-held beliefs you have to see gay marriage is simply not the same as swearing. It’s not the same as homophobic slurs. It’s not the same as racism or sexism or any other pieces of text you might refuse to print. You may think gay love is just as immoral, but at the end of the day it’s not hurting you in any concrete way. More than that, it’s not forcing you into any contract you don’t want to enter into. These days marriage is a fully consensual act – so if you hate gay marriage so much, don’t get married to a gay person!
It’s totally ok for you to consider me immoral. It’s even ok for you to tell me that in the street. That’s your right. It’s important that we all have the freedom to hold our own beliefs and the entitlement to freedom of speech and discussion, but that freedom does not exempt you from accountability. The moment you refuse someone service because of who they are you are crossing a line.
That’s where the law comes in. In the hearing, Lord Chief Justice Morgan stated “the fact that a baker provides a cake for a particular team or portrays witches on a Halloween cake does not indicate any support for either.”
It makes sense right? We surround ourselves with things every day we don’t believe in or totally agree with, but it only seems to start mattering when it’s got something to do with being gay.
What if it was the other way round? I am an atheist. More than that I’m an anti-theist. I believe the world would be better off if all religion just didn’t exist. So what if I declined to bake a cake for Christmas? What if I refused to write a message for a little girls Christening? What if I held the firm and unflinching belief that black people were lesser than whites and so I could not in full conscience make a cake depicting the wedding of a mixed race couple? I absolutely would be taken to court, and rightly so.
I’ve had discussions with many people who believe that the ruling against Ashers is not a victory for gay rights but open prejudice against a Christian business who are victims of religious discrimination, but the fact is, telling religious people they can’t discriminate against other people is not discrimination.
The law cannot stop you from being homophobic. It cannot stop you from having racist tendencies or believing women are secondary to men. It can’t police your thoughts and it cannot fundamentally sway your prejudices. What it can do is stop you enforcing your negative beliefs on other people – and it damn well should!
It’s a growing trend in this country to disguise prejudice as free speech then cite discrimination when you get caught out. But freedom of thought and freedom of expression is not freedom from accountability! You don’t get to have your freedom at the expense of others, and your beliefs, no matter how fervently held, do not allow you to discriminate. I fully respect your freedom to live the life you choose, hell I’ll fight for it! But how come so often that freedom seems to involve the oppression of marginalised groups?
Religious freedom is the right to practice whatever religion one chooses and to live openly in that way, it does not give you the right to enforce your own views upon others by refusing to offer them services.
I understand that when your religious beliefs have been given special treatment your whole life, the enforcement of equality laws might feel like prejudice against you, but it’s not. What you want isn’t equality and freedom of beliefs, it’s special treatment. But that doesn’t fly anymore, because if we’re all equal then your beliefs don’t get to trump those of anyone else.
The fact is, within secular law there is no such thing as a Christian bakery. There’s just a bakery that happens to be run by Christians.
I feel bad for Ashers, because they’ve been made to look like bad people and I don’t think they are. What they are is part of a privileged section of religious culture that is finally being told they don’t get to be above the law.
And that my friends, is true equality at work.