As we mark 100 years this month since the end of the Great War, it would utterly shock some of those men who gave their lives that we are living in a nation where we are fighting a battle against compelled speech. Yes, we rejoice that Ashers Bakery won their case at the Supreme Court last month, but it should never have got this far.
It is blindingly obvious to anyone who cares to look at the case, this was never a matter of discrimination against the customer Mr Lee. He had been served before in Ashers Bakery, and no doubt he will be welcome again. His sexual orientation was neither here nor there. The bakery’s objection related to the message he was demanding for his cake — ‘support gay marriage’.
It simply cannot be the business of the law to compel people to promote other people’s campaigns and beliefs. What’s next? Islamic printers being forced to print satirical cartoons of Mohammed? Atheist web developers being forced to produce creationist websites?
Yet this simple point — that no one should be compelled to promote things they don’t agree with — seems to have been missed not only by the usual suspects at the Northern Ireland Equality Commission, but also by the original court ruling, and even the Court of Appeal which upheld it.
That’s how far this tangled web of equality legislation has gone. As a society we have tied ourselves in so many anti-discrimination knots, we are now tripping ourselves up over our most basic and cherished liberties.
On top of that, a series of posters have appeared in Scotland which are deeply troubling. They’re more to do with shutting down so-called ‘hate speech’ rather than forcing compelled speech. But it’s all part of the same tangled web.
The posters are backed by the Scottish government and the police. One says, ‘Dear Bigots, You can’t spread your religious hatred here. End of sermon. Yours, Scotland’. The poster strongly suggests that religious people are a source of bigotry and hatred and should keep their mouths shut.
It’s not just happening in this country. It’s happening all over the western world. In Canada a professor of psychology came to prominence because he refused to be compelled by law to use transsexuals’ preferred gender pronouns.
Professor Jordan Peterson said he was perfectly willing to negotiate pronouns with his students on a case by case basis, as civilised individuals do in a free society. But he said he would rather go to jail than have the state dictate to him which words he can and cannot use.
Peterson was in the UK earlier this year, and he was interviewed by Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News. If you haven’t seen the wide-ranging interview it’s available on YouTube, and it’s well worth 30 minutes of your time.
In the interview Peterson explained why he took his stance. He said to pursue truth you have to risk offending people, and you have to dig to see what’s going on.
As evangelicals we care about truth, the ultimate truth, the gospel. We have long known that the gospel of Jesus Christ offends against human nature. The idea of secular, politically correct government agencies compelling our speech — especially in an era of heightened sensitivity regarding religious extremism — is alarming.
That’s why we all rejoice at the Lord’s kindness in granting victory in the Ashers case. Yet we should also shake our heads in despair that it should ever have come to this. If they were alive today, what would those young men say about modern Britain, who fought so bravely 100 years ago?
Mike Judge is co-editor of Evangelical Times and pastor of Chorlton Evangelical Church in south Manchester.