Christians in the United Kingdom are waiting, as are Christians in the United States, for their highest court to decide whether an LGBT activist can force a Christian baker to produce a product that promotes homosexuality in violation of his faith.
Arguments concluded this week in the U.K.’s Supreme Court in the case against Ashers Bakery, which was fined by a lower court judge for refusing the request of activist Gareth Lee to make a cake for a same-sex couple.
An intermediate court admitted that the request to make the cake was declined because of the message, not the homosexual status of the person who ordered it. Nevertheless, the court said the rejection of the order amounted to discrimination.
The same issue was argued only weeks ago before the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case against Colorado baker Jack Phillips, who declined to create a wedding cake for two homosexuals at a time when same-sex marriage still was illegal in the state.
Both decisions are expected later this year.
Lee filed the complaint against Ashers and its owner, the McArthur family, with the Northern Ireland Equality Commission.
This week, Northern Ireland’s attorney general, John Larkin, argued in court on behalf of the bakery, which is represented by the Christian Institute.
Larkin previously asserted Ashers’ owners have the right to reject a request to put a pro-homosexual message on a cake under the nation’s freedom of speech laws as well as the European Convention on Human Rights.
A lower court judge, Isobel Brownlie, had found that Ashers had broken discrimination laws by refusing to prepare the cake.
Larkin intervened in the case to present arguments on behalf of the Christian bakers.
“No one should be forced to be the mouthpiece for someone else’s views when they are opposed to their own – whether in print or in icing sugar,” he said at the time.
He said the “issue of political and religious discrimination is direct” and the ramifications are “potentially enormous.”
Testimony in the case at the lower court revealed the bakery owners had no knowledge or concern about any customer’s sexuality. The issue was that the requested message violated their Christian faith, and the European Convention on Human Rights gives them the right to refuse to putting that message on one of their cakes.
In the arguments before the Supreme Court, Larkin said the Court of Appeal “were quite wrong to see the McArthurs in some way as the authors of their own misfortune.”
The dispute erupted when Lee, of the LGBT advocacy group Queer Space, ordered a cake featuring Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie promoting a homosexual event.
Larkin reminded the court the issue was the message on the cake, not the person who ordered it.
He explained there is no barrier to Lee buying any product from Ashers, but compelling the bakery to display a message in conflict with the faith of its owners is impermissible.
Prosecutors tried to liken the bakery’s rejection to a a refusal of service to a mixed-race couple, but Supreme Court Justice Lord Mance rejected the comparison.
Lawyer David Scoffield, on behalf of the McArthurs, told the court, “The notion that a Christian can practice their faith on Sundays but must forget it on Monday is not real freedom of religion and certainly not freedom of conscience.”
After incurring an estimated £200,000 in legal bills, about $260,000, Ashers was ordered to pay £500 damages (about $650) to Lee.
Daniel McArthur, the bakery’s general manager, said in a statement, “We were asked to use our creative skills to endorse a message at odds with everything we believe – and were sued because we said we couldn’t do that.
He continued: “We didn’t say no because of the customer; we’d served him before, we’d gladly serve him again. It was because of the message. This has always been about the message.”
He said the problem is that the Equality Commission demanded an interpretation of the law “which extinguishes conscience.”
“They seem to think that some people are more equal than others. This isn’t what the law is designed to do. And it’s not just us that feel this way. Many people are worried about what all this could mean.”
A columnist for the Belfast Telegraph, Fionola Meredith, agreed, explaining the dispute is over a message, not an individual.
“No company should be under any obligation to facilitate the dissemination of beliefs that are antithetical to the ethos of that business,” Meredith said. “The message itself – not the customer requesting it – has always been the issue for Ashers.”
The Christian Institute has funded the bakery’s legal defense, and Simon Calvert, its deputy director, said earlier the lower court’s findings undermine democratic freedom, religious freedom and free speech.
“Much as I wish to defend the gay community, I also want to defend freedom of conscience, expression and religion,” he wrote.
“It pains me to say this, as a long-time supporter of the struggle for LGBT equality in Northern Ireland, where same-sex marriage and gay blood donors remain banned. The equality laws are intended to protect people against discrimination. A business providing a public service has a legal duty to do so without discrimination based on race, gender, faith and sexuality.
“However, the court erred by ruling that Lee was discriminated against because of his sexual orientation and political opinions. … His cake request was refused not because he was gay, but because of the message he asked for. There is no evidence that his sexuality was the reason Ashers declined his order,” he wrote.
In the United States, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling this summer in the case against Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips.
He refused to make a wedding cake for two homosexuals at a time when same-sex marriage was illegal in his home state of Colorado.
Already, however, Justice Anthony Kennedy has stated in his opinion on the 2015 marriage ruling that religious believers who publicly object to same-sex marriage are protected by the First Amendment.
He said it “must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned.”
“The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths,” Kennedy wrote.
Perhaps the most egregious actions were taken by the state of Colorado against Phillips, which ordered his reindoctrination.
The state Civil Rights Commission first punished him, then cleared three other bakers who also had refused to bake cakes on religious grounds. All three of those cases involved bakers refusing to provide pro-Christian messages.
In fact, the state commission’s antagonism to Christian beliefs became evident at the outset of the case, when one member, Diann Rice, publicly exhibited bias against Phillips during a hearing, comparing him to a Nazi.
“I would also like to reiterate what we said in the hearing or the last meeting,” Rice said during consideration of Phillips’ case. “Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the Holocaust, whether it be – I mean, we – we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination. And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to – to use their religion to hurt others.”
Hear a recording of Rice’s statement: