The ‘Ashers Case’, in which a Christian-run bakery refused to provide a cake because of its gay marriage affirming message, has become a worldwide sensation. The idea of a ‘gay cake’, the cultural context of Northern Ireland (known for its politicised Christianity), and the seeming inevitability of the McArthur family finding themselves declared guilty of discrimination, have exercised a gravitational pull on the collective mind of the media. As the announcement was awaited from the Surpreme Court, there was a sense that the outcome would be something of a fait accompli, the final nail in the coffin of a case which has dragged on for so long. To our surprise this morning the Supreme Court has unanimously found in favour of the McArthur family, declaring them not guilty of discrimination.
Off the back of this announcement some thoughts come immediately to mind:
1. This is a victory for free speech, not a vindication of Christianity: many Christians felt deeply aggrieved when the original verdict in the Ashers case was made known. There was much talk about suppression of religious liberty, about the thin end of a persecutory wedge, about the eclipse of the freedom of religion which we have so long enjoyed in the West. Consequently, today’s decision can seem like a vindication of Christian principle and perspective. While such logic is understandable it is not borne out by the facts.
What was at stake was wider than the concerns of Christians, and spoke right in to the issue of freedom of speech, conscience and expression – and many people without a single shred of sympathy for the cause of Christ felt that a dangerous injustice had been served. The fact that this is so is borne out by figures such as Peter Tatchell, formerly of Stonewall, who stated this morning that,
‘this verdict is a victory for freedom of expression. As well as meaning that Ashers cannot be legally forced to aid the promotion of same-sex marriage, it also means that gay bakers cannot be compelled by law to decorate cakes with anti-gay marriage slogans’.
While the focus in this instance was that of Christian conscience and Christian freedom of speech, the wider issue of liberty and its vindication in the courts this morning can be celebrated by those who are non-Christian, and even anti-Christian.
2. There is a distinction between disagreeing with an ideology and disparaging an individual: Lady Hale this morning stated that, ‘it is deeply humiliating, and an affront to human dignity, to deny someone a service because of that person’s race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion of belief. But that is not what happened in this case’. The issue facing the McArthur’s was not their estimate of, or willingness to serve, Gareth Lee, but their right not to affirm and promote the message which he was seeking to celebrate. This is crucially important, as it exposes a vital fault line which runs through much of the invective levelled against any one who dissents from pro-gay-marriage arguments. An individual can hold a view diametrically opposed to another without disparaging them, denigrating them, or denying them of their rights to likewise disagree. The side impact of postmodern polemical ethics has lost this ability to see nuance between personally held principle and a mutual concern for respect and dignity. It would be a wonderful thing if this case ultimately showed the fallacy of such logic.
3. Christians should be humbly thankful, but not politically triumphalist: as a conservative Reformed Christian I am utterly delighted at today’s ruling. It is affirmative of the historic view of freedom of expression and freedom of conscience, and I am also deeply glad to see my brother and sister in Christ vindicated in law. It is right for those of us who believe in the God who answers prayer and is concerned for his own glory to rejoice in this judgement, but we must be careful not to be unwise in how we express that. Inclusive celebration of freedom of speech tells those who disagree with us (and who closely follow our Facebook and Twitter feeds), that while we are joyful that our freedom of speech and conscience has been upheld, we are likewise concerned that they know this judgement is to their benefit also.
I don’t want verbal or judicial supremacy for my beliefs, I just want a space where I can clearly, intelligently, and freely articulate them. I want a world where those who differ from me are not afraid to do so, in the most robust of terms, and I want that to be the context where the existential and ethical assertions of my faith are heard. Humble thanks is appropriate, seeing this as the outcome of praying imprecatory Psalms for the past number of months (and declaring it to be so in a public forum) is not only unhelpful, it is in fact erosive of the very virtues that we claim the Supreme Court has upheld.