In May 2014, Mr Gareth Lee, a gay rights campaigner, asked a Christian family company in Belfast to decorate a campaign cake with the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’. They declined the order. In May 2015 a district judge found them to have unlawfully discriminated. The family appealed. The Court of Appeal in Belfast delivered their judgment on 24 October 2016. The McArthurs had lost their appeal against the claim of discrimination.
As the news broke, many Christians were left feeling bruised. Another defeat. Another opportunity for opponents to gloat. Some raged at the injustice of it all. Others just wanted the whole issue to go away. But how should we respond?
A terrible ruling
It helps to reflect that the decision drew condemnation from all sides of the political spectrum, as well as from some leading gay commentators. It was a terrible ruling.
Firstly, the judges rightly accepted that the family had not known that Mr Lee was gay when the order was declined. It was therefore bizarre that they still ruled the family to be guilty of discrimination under the Sexual Orientation Regulations. The judges inferred that refusing to produce a cake with the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’ was an act of discrimination against gay people in general. Which, as not all gay people agree with gay marriage, was illogical and absurd.
Secondly, in 2015, a district judge had also found the family guilty of political discrimination. The family appealed against this. The judges failed to engage with this part of the appeal.
Thirdly, earlier this year the Attorney General of Northern Ireland, John Larkin, argued that any judgment against the McArthurs would breach Northern Ireland’s constitutional protections of freedom of speech and religion and conscience. The judges failed to answer these points.
Fourthly, the judges failed to understand the issue of conscience. They regarded production of this cake with this slogan as a merely mechanical process.
An encouraging response
Encouragingly, the judgment was criticised on all sides. It was so evidently unjust that it may prove to be a catalyst for demands for reform. Equality law should be a shield to protect individuals from wrongful discrimination. Instead, it is being used as a sword to force people to affirm current orthodoxies. Many assume that anyone who does not affirm gay marriage is bigoted and unworthy of the protections offered by equality law.
Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell called it ‘a defeat for freedom of expression’, and argued: ‘discrimination against people should be illegal but not discrimination against ideas and opinions.’ A Guardian edi-torial argued that opinions should neither be suppressed nor compelled: The judgment ‘cannot be welcomed by anyone who cares about free speech’. Neil Midgley wrote in The Daily Telegraph: ‘As a gay man, I’m horrified that Christian bakers are being forced to surrender their beliefs. It’s wrong for a minority to be discriminated against when its views don’t align with the prevailing political consensus.’ Philip Johnston, deputy editor of The Daily Telegraph, warned that the judgment showed that we have ‘abandoned the fundamental principles that underpin our democracy and our liberties: freedom of expression and equality under the law’.
A powerful witness
Even more encouraging has been the witness of the McArthur family.
Immediately after hearing this shocking judgment, they had to leave court and face the cameras. Daniel spoke on their behalf. How did they respond?*
Firstly, with grace and kindness. Daniel emphasised that they had never discriminated against anyone personally: ‘We had served Mr Lee before, and we would be happy to serve him again’.
Secondly, with conviction and clarity: ‘If equality law means that people can be punished for politely refusing to support other people’s causes then equality law needs to change. What we refused to do was to be involved in promoting a political campaign to change marriage law. Because we’re Christians we support the current law.’ [Northern Ireland has not introduced gay marriage].
Thirdly, with unshakeable faith in God. Daniel concluded his statement by declaring: ‘God is still on the throne. He is ruler of heaven and earth. He is our God and we worship and honour him’.
How should we respond?
Firstly, with confidence, not fear. While we may be deeply disappointed at this ruling, we know that whatever earthly rulers and judges may decide, they will ultimately have to answer to the King of kings. Our vindication will come at the Last Day. We must go on doing good, telling the truth and not compromising our conscience.
Secondly, with grace and kindness. We are to pray for and show grace to those who misunderstand and oppose us. The McArthurs have been exemplary in this regard.
Thirdly, with faithful engagement in legitimate means to increase freedom for all. In the face of this terrible judgment, some may be tempted to give up and withdraw into the private sphere. But in a democracy we have the opportunity to argue that reform of the law to allow for reasonable accommodation of conscience would benefit all.
Fourthly, with wisdom. Christian businesses will now need to consider seeking legal advice. Are there appropriate ways in which they can advertise their services so that they are protected from malicious litigation? The Christian Institute’s Legal Defence Fund can help in this regard.
Finally, we are commanded to pray for rulers and those in authority over us. We are to be informed, urgent and persevering in such prayers. God calls all rulers to restrain evil and promote good. Sadly, in this case, evil was promoted and good was penalised. But we are to give thanks for those freedoms we still enjoy and pray for our rulers to have courage to protect those freedoms.
Sharon James works for the Christian Institute
* see the video of the response from Daniel McArthur at Christian.org.uk/ashersappeal2016
[As en went to press it was reported that the Attorney General for N. Ireland is seeking to refer the case to the UK Supreme Court to test whether the laws used against the bakery are constitutionally valid.]