Ashers Appeal Court loss in ‘gay cake’ case raises concerns over religious freedom
Last week in Belfast, the owners of the Ashers baking company lost their appeal against an earlier court ruling that their refusal to provide a slogan supporting same-sex marriage in decorative wording on a cake was discriminatory against their client, Gareth Lee.
Reacting to the Appeal Court ruling, Daniel McArthur, of Ashers, said that it undermined democratic freedom, religious freedom and free speech, and he called for a change in equality law so that people could not be “punished for politely refusing to support other people’s causes”.
He made it clear that the company had served Mr Lee previously and would do so again and noted that the judges had “accepted that we did not know Mr Lee was gay and that he was not the reason we declined the order”, adding: “We have always said it was not about the customer, it was about the message.”
THE ASHERS CASE
Last week’s Northern Ireland Appeal Court ruling in the Ashers baking company case, in which it was found that it was unlawful for the bakers to have refused an order by Gareth Lee to place an icing slogan,“Support Gay Marriage”, on a cake, raises fundamental questions about individuals’ freedom to exercise their conscience in a highly litigious social environment.
It is abundantly clear that the owners of the familyrun Ashers company, the McArthurs, had a genuine and profound conscientious objection to doing any act that would lend support to a cause which they see as fundamentally contrary to their deeply held Christian convictions. The Appeal judges’ indication that “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”, displayed a moment of surprisingly shallow thinking. The act of preparing the cake as instructed would, undoubtedly, have led to the promotion of the concept which so deeply offended the McArthurs’ consciences. An individual may disagree with a message but it may not, in fact, offend his or her conscience to be associated with its promotion. However, in this case, it did. This is not an issue of inconsistency but, rather, a case of there being a point at which agreement to do something begins actually to disturb one’s conscience.
Of course, it would normally be the case that if someone is asked to do something that deeply offends his or her conscience and for that reason in a courteous manner declines to do it, the person asking would respect that position and would not make an issue of the matter. Indeed, even the gay rights campaigner, Peter Tatchell, wrote last week in The Independent, following the judgement against Ashers: “Discrimination against LGBT people is wrong and is rightly unlawful. But in a democratic society, people should be able to discriminate against ideas they disagree with. I am saddened that the court did not reach the same conclusion. This judgment opens a can of worms. It means that a Muslim printer could be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed and a Jewish printer could be required to publish a book that propagates Holocaust denial. It could also encourage far-right extremists to demand that bakers and other service providers facilitate the promotion of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim opinions. What the court has decided sets a dangerous, authoritarian precedent that is open to serious abuse. Discrimination against people should be illegal but not discrimination against ideas and opinions.” Those are strong and compelling words from Mr Tatchell.
Moreover, Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion”, including “freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”. While the precise meaning of religious “observance” here may be subject to debate, it is eminently arguable that the owners of Ashers were observing their religious convictions in public. It is clear that religious observance is the subject of a fundamental human right, although the European Convention on Human Rights qualifies this to some degree (Article 9.2). However, the ECHR provision here is debatable, not least in terms of proportionality. The Human Rights Commission should now consider the Appeal judges’ ruling in light of the Univseral Declaration and the issues surrounding ECHR 9.2.
In everyday life, people should have consideration for each other and not expect the other to do things which they simply cannot do without offending their consciences – religious or otherwise. The ruling against Ashers prompted Daniel McArthur to comment: “If equality law means people can be punished for politely refusing to support other people’s causes, then equality law needs to change. We had served Mr Lee before and we would be happy to serve him again. The judges accepted that we did not know that Mr Lee was gay and that he was not the reason we declined the order. We have always said it was not about the customer, it was about the message.”
Mr McArthur’s call for a change in the law is given added weight by Peter Tatchell’s observations. Of course, there is the question of just how one can determine that a sincere, conscientious objection is in fact a sincere, conscientious objection and that the claim is not a pretense. Then again, there may be issues of public safety or of national security. Such are matters which legislators would have to address but it should not be beyond their competence to find appropriate wording to avoid the kind of competition between the human right of religious freedom and equality law that has been at the heart of the Ashers case.
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Letters to the Editor
AS A FRINGE member of the Diocese of Down and Dromore who has to travel by car a full half an hour to Donaghadee parish church in order to experience a celebration of the Eucharist on a Sundayby-Sunday basis, as Our Lord Jesus Christ commanded us to do, at a service in keeping with the historical and traditional pattern of worship formerly found and experienced throughout the Church of Ireland, I still hope that one is granted the freedom to express one’s opinion and to comment on Bishop Walton Empey’s most gentle, sensitive and heartening letter in the 21st October issue of the Gazette regarding the experience of a gay, lesbian couple.
Unless people who are Christians are willing to stand up and be counted and express publicly their abhorrence of unChristian prejudice displayed towards their fellow children of God who may be homosexual, lesbian, bisexual or transsexual, then we are no better than the fanatics who carry out abuse (physical, psychological, emotional or spiritual) of these innocent men and women.
Hiding behind so-called biblical texts as ‘biblical’ Christianity is pathetic in the extreme and shows that in Christ we have learnt nothing from the atrocities perpetrated in the past, and still being perpetrated in the present, by those who claim to be racially or sexually pure and guided by God whatever faith they espouse. It just will not do.
Well spoken, Bishop Walton! Hopefully, more within the Church of Ireland, particularly the clergy who minister to all the Body of Christ without distinction, will follow the Master, Our Blessed Lord, and have the courage, like Jesus, to love all God’s children and say so publicly.
Without a doubt, it is a test of our love and, should we fail, the next generation will totally reject us and consign the institutional Church to the rubbish bin as a historical ‘has been’ and of no relevance to the world of today. At best it may survive as a fundamentalist sect – perish the thought.
Ronnie Clark (Canon Emeritus) Cloughey Co. Down
I REFER to the Revd Peter T. Hanna’s letter in the Gazette of 28th October 28th, in which he condemns Bishop Empey’s letter in support of the blessing of married LGBT people. I disagree with his assertion that Scripture is clear and consistent about the matter of human sexuality.
I’m sure Mr Hanna does not need me to remind him that the Bible, as we read it today, is the result of a range of interpretations and translations from a text which was itself established by careful study of variant texts over centuries Prominent biblical scholars have devoted considerable volumes to the evolution and resulting text of Scripture.
With regard to human sexuality, a handful of passages in the Bible – sometimes referred to as ‘the clobber texts’ – have come to be used to condemn sexual contact between people of the same sex, whatever the circumstances.
These were written in particular historical and cultural contexts and cannot be taken to refer to couples of the same gender in loving, stable and committed partnerships. Recognition of cultural context is essential for our understanding of this debate. Had we ignored cultural context, we would still have slaves and women would remain subordinates in our Church.
We must read the complete text of the Bible when considering these matters, including the significantly more numerous passages that place love, justice and dignity as central to all our actions. This is not revisionism, rather reflective scholarship.
I would encourage Mr Hanna to re-examine the issues, using the Select Committee on Human Sexuality’s recent Guide to the Conversation (2016) or the Biblical Association for the Church of Ireland’s resource, Same Sex Issues and the Bible (2015), both of which give equal weight to conservative and contemporary interpretations of the texts.
Leo Kilroy (Dr) Greenane Co. Wicklow
IN A RECENT Gazette article by the Revd Stephen Neill (16th September issue), he wrote that there are “many informal arrangements and turnings of a blind eye” within the Church of Ireland in favour of samesex marriage.
This, he declares, is similar to that which prevails within the Church of England. If this is true, it is despite the fact that neither the Bible nor Church teaching approves marriage of this nature, as has so often been stated.
In the correspondence column of the Gazette dated the 21st October, we reached a new low in our thinking on this matter when out of pure sentiment a senior cleric of our beloved Church, the Rt Revd Walton Empey, suggested that the Church should rule in favour of that which is clearly contrary to God’s Word and will.
God help us when sentimentality is allowed to define the truth in its application to marriage and sexuality generally in order to accommodate the liberal cultural values and demands of our modern society.
Isaiah’s lament was that in his day “truth had fallen in the street” (Isaiah 59). In order to protect us from the judgement of God, let us all pray that the Select Committee’s conclusions on human sexuality in the context of Christian belief do not kick Christian truth on marriage into the long grass.
B.T. Blacoe (Canon) Tandragee Co. Armagh
IN BISHOP KENNETH KEARON’S article on abortion (Gazette, 28th October), he says it is too simplistic to think that human life begins at conception and cites our advanced scientific knowledge in terms of how the body develops for that conclusion.
God is spirit and science has no way of measuring or even sensing him, yet he does exist and is the source of life.
St Peter said a day is like a thousand years to God and a thousand years like a day; human life is completely unrelated to the physical development in the womb, as the Spirit is not physical. I believe the Spirit enters instantly at conception – complete with a purpose and a plan which is prepared for us by God before we are even conceived.
Does anyone in the Anglican Church doubt that God had a plan for Jesus before he was born? I hope not.
Jonathan Pyle Birr Co. Offaly
MERE SPIRITUALITY – THE SPIRITUAL LIFE ACCORDING TO HENRI NOUWEN Author: Wil Hernandez Publisher: SPCK; pp.108
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