Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Some Reflections On The Ashers Case

The judgement in the Ashers bakery case is disappointing if not surprising. Many of us expected that they would lose the case given the political and legal climate which is developing in the UK (and Ireland) towards men and women of conscience. The McArthur family, who own Ashers, are facing what many other Christian business men and women have been facing for a few years now, including a business in Dublin - a paper shop that was forced to close, and a printing firm in Drogheda which is expecting to hauled before the courts in the not too distant future, all because they seek to reserve the right to conscience in their businesses.

Ms Justice Brownlie, the presiding judge in the Ashers case, revealed in her judgment that while people are allowed to believe what they wish and manifest that belief as they see fit, their faith and its manifestation must be accordance with the law. Now on one hand we see resonances of the tyranny of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I outlawing Catholicism and forcing their subjects to conform to their new religion;  in extremis this may well be the case. However, on one level what the judge says makes some sense. For example if there is a cult out there that believes human sacrifice is a necessary tenet of their religion and worship, as did the Aztecs, it stands to reason that a civilised society cannot permit such practices to be carried out. The law will prevent that and if this cult is to remain in the country it must respect the law and refrain from sacrificing human beings within the jurisdiction. 

On the other hand, for example, Muslims require animals to be slaughtered in a manner consistent with Quranic teaching - Halal. While these methods offend laws concerning cruelty to animals, the State permits them provided the animals are not subject to extreme suffering.  There is, then, a tension between some laws in the State and religious practices, but also a leniency, an understanding. Usually this is no problem. Given that religion has a role in society be to a leaven, though there are many out there who reject this, tension can be healthy and, with mutual respect, can be fruitful. The principle of the common good is usually invoked. But where does the Ashers judgment come in to all this?  

The judgement is the Ashers case is one which offends the common good rather than protects it. The case is specific and concerns freedom of conscience, not the slaughter of animals nor human sacrifice. Freedom of conscience is one of those values a civilised and rational society cherishes and seeks to protect for many reasons including the common good. Freedom of conscience allows for the development of a mature and respectful society and is a guarantee against the growth of tyranny which is always a possibility even within the most democratic of states, as we saw in Germany in the 1930s.  

Embracing this value will mean that there may be certain things a society may have to tolerate, even a blurring of the lines around laws in order to preserve a greater good. The toleration of pacifism within a society is a good case. There are those who refuse to join the army or fight, not because they are cowards or disloyal to the State, but because they seek to remain true to their pacifist principles. A wise government will not force them into the army or into battle, but rather will respect their position and give them other duties to assist the war effort - care of the sick and wounded etc. This may offend some laws regarding a citizen's duty to protect the nation, but respecting freedom of conscience the state is creative and will understand that duty in a broader context.

In the Ashers case we have people of conscience who cannot, in good faith, support gay marriage. They were asked to decorate a cake with a slogan promoting gay marriage - which is not legal in Northern Ireland by the way, using images, Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street, which are in fact copyright. (Ironically, Ashers are prosecuted for refusing to ice a cake with these images and if they had done so they would have been in breach of copyright and open to legal action! No word about that.) For refusing they are sued and lose. They are sued for not adhering to something that is not in force in Northern Ireland. Yes, they are said to have broken the law on discrimination, but strictly speaking one has to ask if a position is illegal in a State (gay marriage in Northern Ireland) and citizens refuse to support that position, can that properly be called discrimination?  In other words, if I can use the Aztec example blunt and all as it is: human sacrifice is not permitted in Ireland, an Aztec arrives to order a cake with the slogan "Support Human Sacrifice" on it and I refuse, can I be prosecuted for refusing to do so? I presume the answer to that question is: no, because human sacrifice is not permitted within the State. So if gay marriage is not permitted within Northern Ireland, why were Ashers convicted of discrimination?

Ashers's right to freedom of conscience should have been respected for the sake of the common good, for one thing their position is in agreement with the Judeo-Christian moral code upon which European and British/Irish society and legal codes are based. Ashers's honest declining to ice the cake (not bake it, by the way - they were willing to provide the cake just not ice what they saw as an offensive slogan on it), did not mean the customer was bereft of a service - there were many others happy to bake and ice the cake. Given the service would have been provided elsewhere and not too far away from Ashers means that the company should have been permitted to remain true to their principles. A wise judgement would have decreed that while Ashers position was unfortunate for the customer, they were entitled to freedom of conscience and the service should have been sought elsewhere. That is the position of most right-thinking individuals: common sense as much as respect for the differing views of others. Of course there is now the question of whether the law allowed space for this respect, or were the judge's hands tied: thatshe had no choice but to implement unyielding legislation?

There will be those who hammer home equality laws and the necessity to enforce them rigidly in order to prevent discrimination. Well, look at the bigger picture then and see where this case will bring us. It is no exaggeration to say that Jewish baking companies can be forced to produce cakes which call for the downfall of Israel or mock Moses; Muslim printers can be forced to print cartoons mocking Mohammed; gay magazines can be forced to run ads for gay reversion therapy; Presbyterians can be forced to advertise novenas to Our Lady in their papers; Sinn Fein can be forced to carry ads in their publications calling for oaths of allegiance to the crown. No one will escape, what is judged to be enforced for one group - Christians, will have to be enforced on all: everyone will have to renounce their beliefs and principles to satisfy this rigid law, there is no room for respect, or diversity! Such laws will not end discrimination, but rather create even greater discrimination, and perhaps attitudes and situations that are even worse.

This enforcement will produce (and I honestly believed it is designed to produce) a monolithic society where diversity and difference are hammered out in the name of a particular ideology.  Today it is the Christians in Ashers bakery, it will be someone else tomorrow, and some will say that's fine because it's only the Christian bigots that will be targeted. But some day soon it will be those who put these rigid laws in place who will fall too. Remember what Martin Niemoller wisely wrote. These harsh equality laws which dispense with conscience, indeed seek to quash it, will one day devour us all, and it seems few have the sense to see it. Today Ashers are the victims, tomorrow the common good, the day after that the very society generations have struggled to build.

UPDATE:  Word is coming through that Tesco is now being targeted by gay activists in an attempt to force the supermarket to cancel its order with Ashers bakery. Though they won in the courts, equality militants want to destroy Ashers completely. This comes as no surprise, it is the pattern we have seen emerge in other cases.


  1. The recent (july 2013) legislation for the baby mutilate / murder legislation has clearly shown that legislation is not law and indeed in this and other cases can in fact be anti-law or lawless. I would argue that in the case of ashers it is a case of law versus anti-law legislation. Natural Law (ie. Law) states that one is not to homosexualise. It further states that there are no exceptions to this. Sound logic would state one should never promote homosexuality as an individual, group of individuals and certainly not as a state legislature. Ashers were in keeping with natural law. They were asked by the customer and by the equality commission to break with the law. They wished to keep the law. Law trumps legislation therefore the legislation on discrimination is wrong and unlawful to ask someone to break the law (natural law). Therein lies the unreasonableness I would say.

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