One of our big local news stories in the past couple of days has been the story of a bakery – Ashers – who refused to produce a cake for a customer. Not just any old cake, mind you, and not just any old customer: and here is where the story gets interesting.
The customer is part of a LGBT pressure group and he was ordering the cake for an event organised against homophobia and transphobia; the cake he wanted would have a slogan in support of gay marriage, together with the logo of a campaign group. The company is run by Christians who are convinced of the traditional Christian teaching on the nature of marriage (in keeping with the current legal position in Northern Ireland); their consciences would not allow them to produce the cake (at least decorated the way the customer wished).
Unsurprisingly, this has created quite a stir. The frustrated customer contacted the local Equality Commission and they in turn contacted the baker, advising that something needed to be done to rectify the situation – which presumably means more than the refund given to the customer! The baker, in turn, contacted the Christian Institute who rallied to his case. Cue the media and the court of public opinion with its inevitable polarisation (we are good at polarising in Northern Ireland; I think it must be something in the water).
It seems to me that there are a couple of issues that need to be thought about.
Discrimination: The law does not allow a business the possibility of withholding goods or services on the basis of a customer’s gender, race, religion, orientation, etc. So if a customer walks into Ashers bakery to order a cheese sandwich, the staff in the bakery have no right to tell him that they don’t serve cheese sandwiches to people like him. Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims are entitled to buy caramel squares, travel on local buses, attend the cinema, or eat food from their local fast food place without any fear of prejudice or discrimination. So are members of the LGBT community. A Christian bus driver may object to aspects of Buddhist philosophy, but he cannot turf Buddhists off his bus. A Christian bakery may disagree with an LGBT lifestyle, but they cannot refuse to sell a cheese sandwich. Or a cake. If a member of the LGBT community wants to buy a chocolate cake, they are entitled to do so, without fear of prejudice or discrimination.
Conscience: What is easily overlooked in all of this is that they did not simply refuse to sell a cake to member of an LGBT campaign group. They declined to make a cake that carried a particular slogan. That slogan clashed with their conscience. (And their conscience, it should not be forgotten, is in line with the current legal definition of marriage in Northern Ireland).
Lady Hale, Deputy President of the UK Supreme Court suggested recently that the law had not yet found a reasonable way to balance an accommodation of people’s right to follow their beliefs and the need to protect other people from discrimination. In addition, two European judges have gone on record as dissenting voices in the European Court’s decision not to support the claims of a British registrar who asked to be excused from civil partnership ceremonies. Granted, the two were outvoted, but they highlighted the place of conscience.
Therein lies an important question in all of this. Can the rights of a trader to follow his/her conscience be respected as much as the right of a customer not to be discriminated against? Should a Muslim butcher be compelled to sell pork chops because a customer wants some for a summer BBQ? Should a shopkeeper be forced to sell alcohol because the customer wants a few beers to accompany his friend’s BBQ? Should a vegan baker be forced to sell cakes with full dairy cream?
You can quibble about the validity of the comparisons and I realise that LGBT campaigners view Ashers’ refusal to make a ‘Support Gay Marriage” cake on a par with a refusal to condemn ageism or racism. I also realise that a conscience clause could open a can of worms and could potentially be abused.
But the conversation needs to happen – and in an atmosphere free of sloganeering and name-calling.
To bake or not to bake: what, actually, is the question?