Ashers was not being asked to support same-sex marriage

Humanist Brian McClinton
Humanist Brian McClinton

Peter Lynas (10th May) says that the Ashers case is about how far the state can go in forcing someone to act against their fundamental beliefs and that if the appeal is lost, freedom of conscience and religion will effectively be banished from the public square.

This is nonsense. First of all, the state is forever restricting freedom of action, and for good reason. If we were all allowed to apply individual moral codes, society would soon descend into chaos.

That’s why, in living together, we agree to be regulated by laws which are not always in harmony with our own personal moral beliefs but which are a set of rules, like the Highway Code, to guide us in our relations with others.

If we were allowed the kind of discretion in our working life that Ashers demanded, then teachers could refuse to give high marks to pupils whose ideas they disliked, doctors could refuse to treat patients whose chosen lifestyles they considered unhealthy, and lawyers could refuse to defend people they think are guilty, etc.

The whole society would collapse under the weight of individual freedom of action.

True, most of these examples concern people who are under voluntary contracts to do their employer’s wishes, but there is no moral reason why businesses should not be under similar restrictions on their freedom of action. Why should firms be allowed to discriminate when individuals aren’t?

Clearly, then, we are not free to do whatever we like: we have to live and let live – otherwise the law of the jungle would prevail and most of us would not survive.

The message on the cake was a perfectly legal one and the bakery was not being asked to endorse it, any more than a newspaper endorses every opinion it publishes.

If a commercial company like a bakery is not a specifically religious or political organisation, then legally it cannot claim exemption in its services. It must comply with the customer’s legal request, even if it doesn’t approve of it.

As the judge said, the defendants are entitled to continue to hold their genuine and deeply held religious beliefs and to manifest them but, in accordance with the law, not to manifest them in the commercial sphere if it is contrary to the rights of others”. To allow them to do that would be “to allow a religious belief to dictate what the law is”.

As for freedom of belief and opinion, Ashers weren’t being asked to make the statement, ‘Support Gay Marriage’ on behalf of themselves; they were being asked to make it on behalf of someone else by scanning an image and icing words provided by the customer. Freedom of belief is an empty concept if we seek to deny our opponent the same freedom we demand for ourselves.

If we expand the small scale action of Ashers onto a macro level, the bakery’s argument could be made by any government which imposed state censorship of ‘undesirable opinions’. Every dictator in the world would find succour in this misguided notion of liberty.

Moreover, freedom of speech is not a zero sum game: my freedom need not infringe your freedom. The bakery could, if it wished, have placed a cake with the message, “We do not Support Gay Marriage”, in the window or put up a disclaimer to the effect that designing a particular message on a cake did not imply support for that message, or it could have asked a non-Christian decorator to ice the cake.

It also has to be asked: is it not being intolerant to wish to suppress an opinion you dislike? Is the bakery’s ‘freedom of conscience’ not really a euphemism for the freedom to be intolerant? There are many things in life we don’t like but we ‘put up with them’. That is what we mean when we say “let’s live and let live”.

A good working definition of tolerance is indeed giving other people the rights you claim for yourself. And is it not also fundamentally unChristian to turn down the request in the sense that the Golden Rule implies showing respect and tolerance for opinions opposed to our own?

Businesses which provide public services for profit cannot pick and choose their customers on grounds of their religious beliefs, political opinions or sexual orientation. And that is how it should be to ensure a high degree of both freedom and equality.

Brian McClinton is a director of the Humanist Association NI