Half-Baked Reflections on the Cake Case

Please note that all that follows, as always, are my personal rambling reflections on this complicated case, and not the position of any other committee, organisation or group to which I belong/ed.

For a couple of months the British media seemed to be fuelled by copious amounts of cake, as Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood put a battery of amateur bakers through their paces on the Great British Bake-Off. It was, on the whole, good spirited stuff, except when Northern Ireland competitor Iain Watters' Baked Alaska melted, and Iain himself went into melt-down, followed in due course by huge swathes of the Great British public…
I did think, at the time, that there was a certain irony in a Northern Irish baker being at the centre of this ridiculously over-hyped story, given that, in the background another Northern Irish cake-based controversy was in the making. I’m sure that most of you know the story by now, but for those who don’t, back in May Gareth Lee, of QueerSpace went into a branch of Ashers Bakery in Belfast and asked for a special cake for an Anti Homophobia and Transphobia Week event in Bangor. They requested that the QueerSpace logo, a photo of Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie, and the statement “Support Gay Marriage” be printed on the cake. As I understand it (and I am prepared to be corrected as I got tired trying to track down anything approaching a precise timeline of this and so I am reliant on my oh-too-fallible memory) the order was initially taken, but after further consideration the owners/directors of the company decided they couldn’t fulfil the order because it contravened their Christian beliefs, and offered the customer a full refund. I don’t know what happened in the interim, but the first I became aware of the whole thing was when it hit the headlines 2 months later, with the news that the Equality Commission was threatening the bakerywith court action if they did not make some sort of restitution. This then prompted a question in the Commons by that champion of equality and expert in matters culinary Gregory Campbell (though recently he has been commenting on curries rather than cakes) and an initial flurry of online comment: for example former conservative MP and Strictly Come Dancing (though not Bake-Off) competitor, Ann Widdecombe had her say… which then prompted a comment by Rev. Paul Thompson of the Government and Morals Committee of the Free Presbyterian Church on the 12th of July, a day usually reserved for comment on other matters that divide this province…
Things then went quiet while the Great British Bake-Off dominated the media… But not long after Alan Sugar’s craggy features replaced Mary Berry’s smile on a Wednesday evening the news broke that, following legal advice, the Equality Commission were going to follow up their earlier threat, and take Ashers to court.
Now, before we go further and I get very serious, and probably lose a few friends, let me make two comments –
First, regarding the Ashers Bakery chain - in my naivety I thought that this was something to do with avid celebrity baker Jane Asher, not a home grown Newtownabbey based organization named after the Biblical Asher, who was blessed by his father Jacob before his death saying that "his bread shall be fat, and he shall yield royal dainties" (Genesis 49:20).
This (slightly obscure) reference points to the importance of the Bible and their Christian faith to the family who founded this bakery chain, the McArthurs, and that is laudable. But is there a difference between being Christian bakers (as they are frequently described) and bakers who are Christians? This may seem like I am splitting hairs, but I like to think that a living faith informs everything that a baker, lawyer, painter or whatever who is a Christian might do, without them defining themselves as a Christian baker, lawyer, painter or whatever, which might seem a more exclusive definition. But that is a side issue (although it may be informing some of the confusion in the whole debate).
Second, is it legal for bakers or printers or anyone else to print copyrighted and trademarked characters without the permission of the owners of the said copyright or trademark, never mind append any sort of unauthorized political/religious or even less contentious message to it? I suspect not. Peter Lynas of Evangelical Alliance and Peter Ould, blogging on the Archbishop Cranmer site, both suggest that this would have been a more straightforward reason to refuse to make the cake, but I suspect that despite their Christian credentials Ashers have baked cakes with such unlicensed images before. Mind you, I’m not sure that I would want to be pursuing a court case in which I admitted that I was trying to encourage someone else to do something illegal, and seeking compensation when they refused to do it. Sesame Street v QueerSpace may make for another interesting piece of litigation.
Anyway, back to the decision by the Equality Commission to back the legal case against Ashers. It has been characterized as a David and Goliath affair by the owners of Ashers (in suitably Biblical terms), but given that they have been backed from the beginning by the substantial campaigning and fundraising power of the Christian Institute (who have the financial clout to advertise on Facebook thus clogging up my newsfeed) I think that David may go into this fight with more than 5 smooth stones in his armoury. Also it seems as if the entire New Israelite army will be cheering David on, with the Free Presbyterian Church in Ulster, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, sundry Anglicans, the Evangelical Alliance, the Catholic Church in Ireland and the Council of Social Responsibility of my ownMethodist Church in Ireland, weighing in, if not in support of Ashers, at least in opposition to the Equality Commission decision. Even the First Minister hasdescribed it as “Bonkers!” and given that responsibility for equality falls within the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister we know that he is a tireless champion of equity and fairness for all (?)…
Language such as that and much of the rhetoric around this case has been less than helpful. Repeatedly it has been said on radio phone ins and on social media comment sections that Ashers and those who support them are homophobic and discriminating against the LGBT community. I even listened last Sunday as Father Tim Bartlett was accused of discrimination on Radio Ulster by one gay activist because, in protest at the ongoing case Tim had announced that he waswithdrawing from some focussed dialogue between the Catholic Church and theLGBT community. On the other side there are those who have characterised this as “persecution” of Christians by the LGBT community and the liberal elite.  Meanwhile Ian O’Docherty, a columnist for the Irish Independent described the original issue as a “posturing ambush” where Ashers bakery had been targeted by gay rights activists deliberately asking “for a service they know will be refused,” and then working with “an arm of the State” in a calculated “shake-down”, “bullying” the Bible-believing bakers.
I have seen no targeting of Ashers as a Christian Company. Presumably Mr. Lee who placed the order was as ignorant as I was as to the origin of the name, and he seems genuinely surprised that the order was ultimately refused and a refund offered. But equally there does not seem to be a specific act of discrimination on the grounds of sexuality. Mr. Daniel McArthur, general manager of Ashers has clearly stated from the outset that they are willing to serve any customer irrespective of religion, sexual orientation or political belief, and that it was the statement on the cake rather than the purchaser of the cake that was the issue… I find myself in the unusual circumstance of agreeing with Ms. Ann Widdecombe in the Daily Express, where she said “If the baker had refused merely to bake a cake because the customer was gay then that would indeed have been both unpleasant and illegal but the refusal was specific to the message requested for the cake."
Would the order have been refused had it been a heterosexual person asking for a cake in support of gay marriage? From what Mr. McArthur has said, the answer appears to be yes. Is that in itself discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation as the Equality Commission seems to allege? Without any other evidence I would suggest not.
Would the order have been refused had it been a heterosexual or homosexual person asking for a cake for a civil partnership? That question has, so far as I am aware, never been asked, but had it been it would have opened up a whole other cake of worms…
But the case/cake under consideration is one making what might be seen as a political statement on the subject of gay marriage… Ann Widdecombe in her column, went on to say “Surely it is an elementary feature of true democracy that nobody should be obliged by law to affirm that which he or she does not believe… In a free country the baker should be able to refuse to take part in what is effectively PR for gay marriage...” But actually in Northern Ireland I am not sure that we are at liberty to do that given that in the political powderkeg that is this province, political opinion is a so-called “protected characteristic”, meaning that we cannot be discriminated against on the basis of our political (or on exactly the same basis, religious) opinions in the provision of services. There has been a lot of nonsense talked/written about whether Ashers would have been at liberty to refuse to make a cake in support of Nazis/Fascists/PLO/Israel/ISIS/Sinn Fein (delete as applicable), but as I understand it (and I am not a lawyer) Northern Irish law offers little leeway to political discrimination, except where there is implied support for violence (although whether that would allow them to refuse an order of a cake in support of Blair’s Invasion of Iraq, if you were sick enough to order such is uncertain). Peter Lynas of Evangelical Alliance (who is, or at least was a lawyer) is correct in asserting that this addition to the Equality Laws of Northern Ireland  “was designed to give extra protection against sectarianism” but it is framed in such terms that it actually acts as potential cover to a wide range of political opinions, some which I might see as morally bankrupt (and I don’t mean conservatism). So as I see it, if you are not prepared to print/bake all hews of political opinion then you cannot, in Northern Ireland print/bake any. And given the wide definition of what constitutes politics here (including poppy-wearing, flag-waving, football team supporting, language-using) that may radically restrict your range of personalised cakes. (Rev. Peter Ould seems to disagree with my assessment, but I’m not convinced, and assume from the fact that the Equality Commission have added the political discrimination to the “charge” suggests that their legal advisors agree with me … although I do agree with him that the Christian Institute’s characterisation of this as a “clash of cultures” may be ultimately damaging to an authentic engagement on real issues of discrimination against Christians).
This may be the Achilles Heel of Ashers case, and if so they may end up being prosecuted under a very clumsy piece of legislation which ultimately may restrict the exercise of both religious and political conscience in the public square. The Methodist Church’s statement on this matter, which is what finally roused me from my blog-free slumber, suggests that at the heart of this is a “matter of conscience for Ashers” and commends them “for their willingness to take a stance” on the basis of that conscience. Ian O’Docherty, in the Irish Independent also suggests that “The heart of this case is the right to dissent and to follow your own conscience as long as you're not going out of your way to make someone's life more difficult,” whilst Norman Hamilton, former Presbyterian Moderator and Convener of their Church and Society Committee makes a plea for “much more scope to exercise freedom of conscience in such situations.” In this he explicitly argues for the much vaunted ‘reasonable accommodation’ as suggested by Baroness Hale reflecting/repenting at leisure after a muchpublicised prosecution for discrimination of Christian B&B owners, where she argues for a "conscience clause" to the equality legislation. This seems to be what Gregory Campbell was also asking for in the PMQ back in July, but I am with Peter Lynas in his belief that the reasonable accommodation argument actually concedes that discrimination has occurred but seeks a “get out of gaol free” card for it.
That isn’t real conscience. Real conscience costs… In all of this outrageously long post I have avoided offering my opinion on the issue of same-sex marriage, because ultimately this isn’t actually about that… it is about the right of people to exercise any sort of political discrimination based on religious conscience in the public sphere… But when it comes down to it I believe the government is at liberty to change the definition of civil marriage any time it likes. Whether that matches with the church’s definition of marriage is another question altogether… But the church cannot have it both ways… It cannot exercise its conscience to define marriage in its own terms AND continue to act, as many denominations do, as civil registrars. That is seeking to have our conscientious cake and eat it.
Peter Lynas doesn’t believe that illegal discrimination has occurred, whilst I do (although again, he is the one who was legally trained), but both of us believe that the legislation under which Ashers are likely to be prosecuted is seriously flawed. We do not need a conscientious objection opt-out of equality, but we do need more sensible legislation. Indeed Norman Hamiltonwants to encourage thoughtful, gracious and yet rigorous discussion about how Biblical faith should relate to equality legislation” and that “There is a need for Churches and Christian people to engage with these issues and indeed be to the fore in promoting such equality and human rights.” 
Frankly I was disappointed that the Methodist Church did not make such a plea in its own statement or affirm its commitment to equality for all… Perhaps, on the basis of our track record there was a feeling that they didn’t have to, but for those who know nothing of the Methodist Church’s continuing dialogue on such matters, our statement might be misconstrued as buying into the Christian Institute’s assessment of this as a clash between  Christian conscience and homosexuality. But there is no unanimous Christian position and hence conscience on the issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage (and indeed there is no unanimous position on same-sex marriage within the LGBT community). Indeed it was ironic that on the Irish Methodist website the news of the Council on Social Responsibility’s statement re the Ashers Bakery issue lay adjacent to an advert for an event tonight in the Agape Centre, where I am Superintendent, run by the Accepting Sexuality Group. 

Entitled “The Christianity of Gay and Lesbian Truthfulness: Magnanimity and the Undoing of Scandal” the blurb claims that the speaker James Alison, a Catholic theologian, will explore how those who have been opposed to, hated, or frightened of, the LGBT community, might be encouraged by them, into what he describes as a fuller inclusion. Unfortunately, although it is taking place in my church, I cannot attend because I was already scheduled to be chairing a meeting elsewhere when this was booked. But I am strongly tempted to re-schedule, because this sort of generosity of spirit, is exactly what I would like to see practised in this whole debate.
Again I agree with Peter Lynas of Evangelical Alliance that the Commission’s approach, insofar as it has been portrayed in the media, has been adversarial from the start and as such, deeply unhelpful, and as Norman Hamilton suggests it potentially “undermines and shuts down the kind of respectful wider debate and discussions that are necessary.”
But is the onus of grace/generosity and the imperative of inclusion on what Ian O’Docherty calls an “arm of the state”?
Or is it actually on the church, and those who claim to be followers of Christ, citizens of the Kingdom of God, whether they are Methodists, Presbyterians or Anglicans, Evangelicals or Catholics, butchers, bakers or candlestick makers?



Jane Dawson said…
Well said, great to hear some reasoned comment on this issue.
Anonymous said…
I was all set to defend freedom of conscience, until I read the judgment, on Bailii. What I eventually blogged was very different from what I expected to be blogging!

No platform for gay cakes!


Popular posts from this blog

A Woman of no Distinction

I am the True Vine

Psalm for Harvest Sunday