Faith at risk from a ‘failure of freedom’ says archbishop, referencing Ashers

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby speaks during a national service of thanksgiving to celebrate the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II at St Paul's Cathedral in London
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby speaks during a national service of thanksgiving to celebrate the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II at St Paul's Cathedral in London

The Ashers ‘gay cake’ judgement has been cited by the leader of the world’s Anglican community, as he declared Christian faith is threatened by “ a failure of freedom of expression”.

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was speaking in the House of Lords during the week in a debate about religious freedom.

The discussion also saw Ashers mentioned by a Lib Dem and a Conservative lord, who spoke approvingly of the judgement handed down on Wednesday, October 10, which found the family baking firm did not breach anti-discrimination law by failing to ice the slogan ‘support gay marriage’ on to a cake.

As well as heading up the Church of England, the Archbishop is also head of what the Anglican Communion itself estimates to be a worldwide family of 85 million Anglicans (including what is thought to be about 200,000-plus people in the Church of Ireland).

He wondered aloud that, “for all our rich Christian heritage in this country, as seen in our laws, practices and many of our values, the breadth of view which we tolerate has become less and less wide”.

He said Christians themselves have often historically disagreed with each other - adding his official residence Lambeth Palace has an old prison inside because of exactly that reason.

“However, even where I disagree, I want to uphold the right of these people to say things that are neither fashionable nor conventional today,” the archbishop said.

“That has certainly been examined in the Supreme Court recently, through the Ashers case.

“Although there might be things in that case that I would question, it is a thoughtful, erudite and profound examination of the intertwining of freedom of belief and freedom of expression.”

He said that most religious belief “demands a loyalty beyond country or group—a loyalty to ultimate truth”, adding that “it says there are absolutes, and we should rejoice at them”.

He concluded: “Monopoly views, secular or religious, merely enable people to live in bubbles of mutual incomprehension, and even ignorance.

“Christian faith and values, or those of other faiths, are not threatened by diversity of faith, but by a failure of freedom of expression, provided it does not include incitement to hatred, however robustly used.”

Adding their voice to the debate was Tory peer Lord Cormack, who declared himself “very glad” at the Supreme Court’s judgement.

“That was a very important landmark judgment, and I hope it will play a part in making us more understanding of each other,” he said.

Lib Dem Lord Beith meanwhile said that “overzealous and bureaucratic interpretation of things like equality legislation” has led to a “clash of rights” in some cases.

The Ashers judgement “draws a clear distinction between discrimination against an individual based on their opinions or sexuality, which is unlawful, and the protection of the right of an individual to refuse to express a message”.

In reaching their conclusion on October 10, the five judges of the UK’s Supreme Court in London effectively over-ruled two earlier judgements in Belfast courts.

Ashers had initially been found to have broken anti-discrimination law by failing to bake a cake with the slogan ‘support gay marriage’.

This was upheld on appeal.

The Supreme Court’s judges unanimously arrived at a different conclusion, saying the firm had not refused Gareth Lee’s order because it thought he was gay, but because of the message on the cake.

After four-and-a-half years of court battles and an estimated £500,000-plus spent on both defence and plaintiff legal teams, it found that Ashers was not in fact legally liable for “the refusal to express a political opinion contrary to their religious beliefs”.