Ashers Baking Company is not just rolling over in its fight to defend itself against the Equality Commission of Northern Ireland. Instead, it is determined to protect freedom of conscience. There is much at stake here.
Three days after Judge Isobel Brownlie levied a £500 penalty on Northern Ireland’s Ashers Baking Company for refusing to decorate a cake in favour of gay marriage, the vultures swooped.
The Belfast Telegraph’s Sunday life paper sent a reporter to Ashers requesting them to decorate a celebration cake that was an exact replica of the one Ashers refused to produce in 2014 for a pro-gay marriage campaign group.
The paper gleefully reported that the person answering the phone replied, ‘We don’t have time for this’, before putting the phone down, whereupon Sunday life sent a reporter to be photographed outside the Christian family firm, holding a photograph of the original cake design.
The saga began in May 2014, when Ashers declined an order placed at its Belfast store by a gay rights activist, asking for a £36.50 cake featuring the campaign slogan ‘Support gay marriage’. The customer also wanted the cake to feature the logo of a Belfast-based campaign group called QueerSpace.
However, Ashers refused to decorate the cake, because the message was contrary to the firmly held Christian beliefs of the owners, as well as their son — bakery general manager, Daniel, 25 — and his wife, Amy, 26.
The firm was taken to court by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI), in a £40,000, taxpayer-funded law suit. The ECNI accused the firm of political and sexual orientation discrimination.
Despite widespread support from Christians within Northern Ireland and across the world, the family was found to have caused offence to the customer. The ECNI won its case.
The bakery, owned by Colin and Karen McArthur, intend to appeal the decision. In a statement from their legal team, the family said, ‘After much careful and prayerful consideration given to legal advice, we have decided to appeal the judgement.
‘We continue to insist that we have done nothing wrong, as we have discriminated against no individual, but rather acted according to what the Bible teaches regarding marriage.
‘As many other people have already noted, Christian beliefs seem to have been trampled over in this judgement and we believe this only has negative effects for our society’.
Simon Calvert, deputy director of the Christian Institute, which funded the McArthurs’ defence, said, ‘The ruling will sadden all those who value freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. It has always been clear that the reason for declining the order was the message, not the customer. Ashers is, and has always been, happy to serve everyone.
‘We are baffled by the court’s decision to uphold the ECNI’s claim of political discrimination. This was a late addition to the case and the ruling suggests all business owners now have to be willing to promote any political cause or campaign, no matter how much they disagree with it, or — as the ECNI has suggested — close down’.
Andrea Williams, chief executive of Christian Concern, said, ‘People should be free to run their business in accordance with their ethos. The freedom to live as Christians is recognised by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides strong protections for freedom of thought, conscience and religion’.
A poll carried out via Sky News’ Twitter feed revealed that 339 thought the judge was wrong, and 154 backed the case against Ashers. Speaking on Sky News, Ms Williams said, ‘They were not discriminating against a person. It was all about the message and about being free not to promote a message with which the family fundamentally disagreed’.
In November 2013, Christian B&B owners Peter and Hazelmary Bull appealed to the UK Supreme Court after being sued by gay couple Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy and ordered to pay £3,600 in damages. Their B&B only allowed married couples to share a double bed. However, they were found to have discriminated against Mr Hall and Mr Preddy.
In the US, one rather controversial Christian blogger, who runs the website Shoebat.com, phoned 13 different homosexual Californian bakeries, who refused to sell him cookies or cakes decorated with pro-traditional marriage slogans.
Recordings of his telephone calls revealed that most (not all) were polite in explaining they could not accept such a commission, as they did not agree with or support such a slogan. While not everyone would support Shoebat.com’s tactics, the episode reeks of global double-standards.
It is not just Christians at risk, however. Ms Williams and Mr Calvert have claimed that the Ashers case will affect all suppliers who have religious or political leanings.
In a column in The Jewish Chronicle, historian Geoffrey Alderman said, ‘Sooner or later this will involve British Jewry. The introduction of same-sex marriage in England necessarily involved an assault on religious beliefs and religious rights’.
Mr Alderman said British Jews could soon be affected, claiming the actions against UK Christians had left him ‘in horror’. He said, ‘In a liberal democracy, the right to live one’s life in accordance with deeply held, non-violent beliefs needs to be protected, whether or not you or I happen to agree with them’.
Even humanist and pro-gay marriage actor Sir Patrick Stewart said he supported Ashers. When interviewed on the BBC’s Newsnight, presenter Evan Davis asked the actor about the case.
Sir Patrick replied: ‘It was not because this was a gay couple that they objected. It was the actual words on the cake that they objected to, because they found them offensive. And I would support their right to say, “No this is personally offensive to my beliefs, I will not do it”.’
Acts 16:35-40, Acts 21-26 and Romans 13 provide ample evidence of the legitimacy of Christians peaceably pursuing freedom of conscience in the public arena. Yet, in spite of this, God sometimes permits Christians to suffer great injustice at the hands of the state (as in the apostle Paul’s case).
When that occurs, it is right to remember that the sufferings of Christians, as well as their popularity, can be used by the Holy Spirit for the furtherance of the gospel. This is especially true when they react to disappointments with humble trust in the Saviour.
Such a gracious reaction has been commendably demonstrated by the McArthur family in recent weeks. The prayers of many believers will surely be with them for the successful outcome of their legal appeal, according to the sovereign will of our all-wise God.