Ashers Baking Company: ‘Gay cake’ row could end up in court

Three quick, off the top of the head, questions that, I recognise, need to be thought through in more detail.

1. This picture promotes ‘Gay marriage’. The important word is ‘promotes’. While, legally, we are obliged to recognise that the UK accepts gay marriage, are we under obligation to promote it? We accept the right of Muslims to worship without being oppressed but we are not obliged to promote Islam. We accept that people should not be discriminated against because of the colour of their skin but we are not obliged to promote any particular organisation that supports racial equality. We accept the existence of a wide range of political parties but we are not obliged to promote any. Is it important to maintain the distinction between acceptance and promotion?

2. If I understand the situation correctly, Ashers did not refuse to fulfil the order because the customer was homosexual, indeed, I don’t know if he or she was. They refused to assist in promoting  a cause; they did not refuse to serve a customer because of his or her sexual orientation. Is it not reasonable to refuse to promote a cause with which one is not in sympathy?

3. If it transpires that refusal to bake this particular cake is actually illegal, have we come to a defining moment at which the Church must decide whether to follow the demands of UK law or to act in a way that, we believe, promotes human flourishing? If the choice is to be made, its consequences will have to be accepted. The end of Christendom is not to be mourned but this, and similar recent events, indicate what the future may hold for the Church. Are Christians in the UK willing to listen to, and learn from, brothers and sisters in other parts of the world where being socially unacceptable and seriously legally constrained have always been the norm.

And a final tangentially related thought: In the discussions surrounding Orange parades, a number of folk have said that protests must be peaceful. I fully agree. They have also said that there is no room for civil disobedience – I’m not so sure about that. Civil disobedience has a long and honoured place in Christian history, but it has to be done peacefully and lovingly. Perhaps Christians supporting a bakery might show others how it should be done.

As with all of my posts, this comes as my personal opinion, not that of UTC.

6 Replies to “Ashers Baking Company: ‘Gay cake’ row could end up in court”

  1. The first two points are great and are increasingly being communicated in the media. I think the third one needs some clarification. My understanding of civil disobedience is that, for the Christian, the possibility of engaging in it arises when ‘we must obey God rather than human beings’ (Acts 5:29). Biblically, it seems always to be a non-compliance with a law that requires us to do something rather than breaking a law that does not permit us to do something (for example, the Israelite midwives not reporting male births in Exodus 1:17). This would rule out blocking a street for example. It would also rule out civil disobedience because a group claiming Christian credentials is not allowed to march along a street because as far as I can see, marching down streets is not a biblical command from God. Civil disobedience in the Bible also always seems to include the readiness to bear the resulting punishment as result (Daniel and his friends being the famous examples but also every Christian who was put to death in the Roman arena). I am happy if someone can steer me to a different biblical understanding of this issue…

    1. Is there a significant difference betweeen not doing what a law commands and doing what a law prohibits? I think the legal issue is the same; is refusing to drive under the speed limit not the same as actively driving over the speed limit? However I’m open to correction. You mention Daniel. Indeed, he and his friends refused to obey the law but he also positively broke the law by praying, to at least some degree, publicly. Was the pattern of his praying in response to a direct Biblical command? Was itnot civil disobedience? Could it be construed that Jesus’ breaking of a range of Sabbath laws was civil disobedience?
      You are absolutely right, walking or not walking is not a core faith issue and I wasn’t intending to present it as such. I was thinking of the broader principle of the relationship of the Christian to the law. How does one protest legitimately? Again, you are correct in saying that, if a Christian breaks the law, he or she must be prepared to submit to the law by taking the appropriate punishment.

  2. I stand corrected on Christians actively breaking the law in civil disobedience – in fact the Acts 5:29 reference refers to Christians actively speaking when they were told not to (the authorities commanding them not to speak were not civil but religious but they still had power to deliver physical punishment). However, the believers in the Bible (and Jesus) broke the law by speaking or praying or healing are all positive things and do not cause harm to anyone. I’d be interested if there was ever a biblical case of civil disobedience where a believer actively broke the law (as opposed to refusing to do something to fulfil a law) which was not for the blessing of others. Biblically, it seems that the idea of blocking roads or other forms of protest that impinge negatively on other’s people’s lives are not Christian.

  3. People seem to be considering this issue as some sort of culture war gays vs the church front. This really needs to be looked at as issue of consumer protection and ensuring that consumers, who have little bargaining power and ability to protect their interests are able to reasonably expect access to services provided to the public by larger business entities. As much as the directors supporters like to use the words “Christian run,” Ashers is a large a corporation with 62 employees and should therefore not be consider of any religion. Consider the following:

    1. The company does not have beliefs – Ashes is not a small “Christian run” business. They are a large company with 6 stores. They employ 62 people. It is unlikely that all the employees will share the directors beliefs. A corporation cannot hold a religious belief – it has no soul. The religious view in this case belongs to and only to the director of the corporation and to nobody else. It is not reasonable that 1 directors narrow religious views be dictated to the rest of the corporation, it’s employees and its customers. I agree that if an employee had an objection to decorating a cake with imagery he feels uncomfortable with then he should not have to do it – That is an issue between employer and employee. However a director refusing when he does not have to look at the cake and for the most part may not realise it was there is too much of a stretch. Most likely the template would have been submitted to the company when the order was placed, printed on a printer by the decorator and placed on a ready made cake. The process would not have consumed a huge amount of time and involved no skill on the part of the director himself.

    2. Ashes breached the contract – From what I’ve read (I may be wrong) the order was initially accepted and money changed hands which is why the purchaser was offered a refund. That means the director personally intervened it was an ordinary business transaction to push his personal agenda. If that is correct then at common law the company breached it’s contract which gives the purchaser a right to damages to restore them to the position as if the contract had been performed. There is no conscious defence at common law. Why did the director do this anyway. The director would most likely never have seen the cake or spoken to the customer so why does he have to throw his weight around to make a statement. His business would have benefited from the money made from the sale and publicity gained from the fact it was to be eaten at a private which would have contributed to publicity. I’m sure there would have been many employees who would have been happy to fulfil the order.

    3. Consumer protection – If businesses are trading to the public then the public has a right to expect fair treatment. That is they should be able to shop with confidence. If you go into a shop you should be able to expect both service and that it will be provided with due care and skill. A business should not be able to pick and choose who it serves otherwise you distort the market. Certain individuals would have to walk around with shortlists of shops they can and cannot visit and eventually consumer confidence would drop to the disadvantage of the business community. Ashers carries on the business of baking cakes. It is not there to preach religion. Consequently it is not unreasonable for consumers to expect that they would accept an order for a designer cake. That is there job – a job they gave to themselves.

    4. Business are privileged. Small business already receive a lot of tax and employment incentives from the government and are able to use government infrastructure such as water, electricity, roads and occupy space in the high street. It is not unreasonable therefore that the public expects them to be professional and reasonable in their dealings. If it was a private club baking cakes or the church kitchen then they would have no obligation to bake a cake with a gay theme. However they are a corporation carrying on the business of baking designer cakes, so it is hardly unreasonable for a member of the public to expect an order would be filled. It wasn’t as if this cake contained any pornographic imagery or swear words or anything a reasonable person would consider objectionable.

    5. The director never had anything to do with the cake – The director would most likely never have seen the finished product or have had anything to do with it’s printing. Therefore he cannot claim it to be either a use of his skills or an infraction on his conscience. Only the employees could. It was just one more transaction that the corporation undertook. I’m sure the corporation would have baked cakes for a number of people he doesn’t support. There is no more reason for him to stand in and try to stop a cake being baked because he doesn’t personally support gay marriage anymore than he should stop a cake being baked for the local support group of a footy team he doesn’t support.

    6. Merely because the cake may have had a political message does not mean that the baker endorses it. The cake was to be eaten at a private function and was not being displayed inside the shop. It is unlikely the company symbol would be shown anywhere at the function. Given Ashers is a relatively large baking company in the Belfast area it is likely that they would have baked products that would have contained many political messages and are not considered linked to any of those. Why is this one such as issue.

    7. Why is CI getting involved – It’s also odd that the company would be accepting legal aid from a group such as the Christian Institute. Why do they need help. There a corporation with 62 employees and 6 shops. They probably already have contracts with law firms for advice over things such as corporations law, property transactions and employee contracts. Why are they going to the Christian Institute. The fact remains that the Christian Institute is a right wing political group with a specific agenda and always seeks to put it’s two pennys worth into every culture war issue. This just demonstrates that some religious groups and people love to martyr themselves in disputes like this as a way of demonising and dehumanising the gay community. Ashes is a corporation. They should defend themselves.

    There does appear to be attempt to legitimise Homophobia by calling it a religious belief. People of different faiths can believe what they like, but a corporation trading to the public should not be able to refuse to provide it’s generally available services to any customer based on their desires for the service or their personal attributes. If corporations be allowed to enforce the religious beliefs of their directors or shareholders or can use the beliefs of 1 director or shareholder as an exemption from generally applicable laws then it could mean that certain sections in the community will be disadvantaged in terms of provisions of services and employment. This would be a disaster for both the public at large and would surely be detrimental to christians themselves. Take it outside your right wing comfort zone. Suppose a building and construction firm who had a director opposed to anglicanism refused to perform a repair for the local anglican church when a storm damaged their roof making the building unsafe to enter. If the community was unable to raise funds to use a more expensive contractor or a different contractor was unavailable in the area or did not have the expertise that parish could find themselves in a very difficult position. It would be an indirect impingement on their ability to privately practice their faith.

    1. A lot of stuff here, tj, many thanks. I wish I had time to reply in detail and, more importantly, with more knowledge. I think that you, like me, are relying on second hand information. I suppose, in time, if things go to court the details will become more freely available.

      There are a number of points on which I agree with you but might want to nuance. Consumer protection is important and consumers do need to be protected from abuse by powerful big business. However, this is hardly such an isssue. There was no attempt to defraud, overcharge, offer shoddy goods or the like. Nor was there any attempt to deny the customer something that he or she could not obtain elsewhere.In addition, while 62 employees are not insignificant, Ashers is hardly a ‘larger business’.

      A company does not and cannot have beliefs. INdeed, but companies do have corporate values that they have every right to express. While employers cannot compel employees to share religious or other views, is it really conceivable that a company does not express the values of its directors?

      A contract was entered into. I’ve no idea about contract law. If there is a clear breach of contract, then Ashers must abide by bthe law.

      Consumer protection. I think the issue was not WHO was being served but what was being asked for. I have no idea if the customer was gay or straight and if Ashers had refused to fulfil an order because the customer was gay, that wpuld be wrong. But I think that was not the case. While in general customers might exepect an order to be fulfilled, we can both easily think of slogans or images that we would not agree to produce because we would find them offensive.

      Your fourth point is similar to the third (although presumably Ashers, like all businesses, pay for the services that they receive). The right refuse, that you accept in this paragraph, we also agree on. Where we differ is what we might find offensive and, clearly there is much debate in society as a whole about this.

      The director must carry the can for what happens within the firm so I think he does have the right to step in. Why else would he be the one ‘in the dock’, with the other directors now. The comparison with football teams is not sound. No-one argues that supporting one football team is moral while supporting another is immoral; supporting one is good for society while supprting another is destructive. A closer parallel might be political parties: I can see how many might refuse to bake a cake for, say, a Fascist party.

      I think your sixth point has much truth. This should not be a single issue. I don’t know if this is the only time the company has made such a refusal but I very much doubt that it is the only issue on which they might make such a refusal. This just happens to be the issue that has presented itself in this case.

      It is unfair to describe the Christian Institute as a ‘right wing group with a specific agenda.’ Of course it has an agenda, don’t we all? Don’t groups like Amnesty International have an agenda? What’s wrong with haveing aan agenda so long as it is open and legitimate. CI is not politically right wing, I’m not sure but I think, if anything, it may even be a bit left of centre, politically (have to admit I could be wrong there!). It is certainly not like some of the right wing religious/political groups in the USA. The CI has every right to offer moral support for co-religionists. Financial support, in my opinion, should ‘kick in’ if there is significant hardship for thAshers in defending themselves through the courts, especially if their case might fail through lack of funds. I would hope that Ashers would be prepared to refuse financial help if it was capable of funding its own case without inappropriate hardship (say, making many staff redundant to pay legal fees)

      The term ‘homophobia’ is far too widely used. Strictly speaking there is no evidence at all that Ashers is homophobic. They disagree with ‘gay marriage’ but so do some gay people. Homophobia is a fear or, more popularly, a hatred of gay people. One can oppose ‘gay marriage’ without hating gay people.

      Your building contractor example is partly correct, he would have every right to refuse to do the work if he believed repairing guttering was an immoral act. That would be his choice. If he refuses because he is ‘Anglophobic’, that’s religious bigotry. It seems to me that Ashers actions are parallel to the former, not the latter. As I’ve said above the refusal was because of the content of the message, not the person making the request.

      The hints that you make in a couple of places are also true. Christianity is moving out of mainline society. Christendom is dead and, in many ways, that’s no bad thing. If Christians have to choose between social acceptability and faithfulness to God, then so be it. If a consequence of this is to refuse to abey a law then they must take the consequences of their stand and accept the punishment that the law demands. However, in a democracy Christians have the right to use democratic means to influence the making and interpretation the law.

      TJ, the only thing to which I take exception in your response is the accusation that I am right wing. If you mean this politically, you could not be more wrong. Please never confuse evangelicalism with right wing politics.

      Again, many thanks for your contribution. This was written quickly so apologies for the incoherence.

  4. I would like to make a couple of observations in relation to the comment “The term ‘homophobia’ is far too widely used. Strictly speaking there is no evidence at all that Ashers is homophobic. They disagree with ‘gay marriage’ but so do some gay people. Homophobia is a fear or, more popularly, a hatred of gay people.” The point I would like to make is that this is about people and it’s individuals who are going to be affected either way. It’s not solely a debate of ideology.

    Obviously it’s a democracy and you can hold whatever position you like on any government, social, economic or policy issue. But I think that people making this argument have a large empathy gap in their understanding of LGBTI issues and of sexual orientation in general. This is one of those policy areas that has a direct impact on a particular minority group. The debate tends to privilege heterosexual relationships and heterosexual marriage. People of the opposite gender will still be able to marry each other regardless of whether or not civil marriage is opened up to same sex couples. This means that gay couples are finding their own sexualities and relationship under heavy scrutiny, cross examination and question – not something that heterosexuals have to deal with or if they do it would be rare. Not being able to get married or having people suggest their marriage is wrong will obviously affect the gay community more than it will the rest of society no matter how well you think you can argue the point. A comparison would be something like this – You can debate whether or not the government should continue industry assistance to manufacturing and not be considered to be anti-manufacturing workers. You could make a strong economic case for removal of industry assistance. But unless you are one of the workers who is going to loose their job, or their family or anyone who will be affected by a factory closure due to the lack of government support, then you aren’t going to be as greatly affected by the decision. Those workers have a huge stake in the debate greater than people who don’t live near the factories, will not loose their jobs and may simply have ideological reasons for supporting the removal of industry assistance.

    Sexual orientation is more than just desire. For a lot of people it’s a temperament and can even be a world view. It’s an important part of people’s identity – That is true for heterosexuals as well. Also people’s relationships are more complicated that just sexual practice. Being heterosexual is not just the practice of men sleeping with women, so being gay is not just the practice of same sex intercourse. The people getting married under same sex marriage legalisation are doing so for the same reasons that opposite sex couples get married.

    People are entitled to their religious beliefs obviously. But its worth remembering that the view that same sex attraction or desire is wrong or sinful damages LGBT people. For many it’s offensive, judgemental and causes great emotional pain. I’ll give you a comparison. The view among some muslims that Allah is the only god and Muhummad is his last profit and that everyone who does not follow him is an infidel may upset people in other faiths such as judaism or christianity. A lot of christians become upset when some Islamic groups refer to Jesus as a profit of Islam or suggest that the trinity is idol worship because they see it as an attack on a core part of their faith and identity as christians. Yet that view is still part of the sincerely held religious belief that muslims have.

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