In what certainly is a rare occurrence, the Supreme Court in the United Kingdom this week is hearing arguments on an issue heard recently in the U.S. Supreme Court: whether an LGBT activist can force a Christian baker to create a product that violates his religious beliefs.
In the U.K., it is the family-owned Ashers Baking Co. that was fined for declining to promote homosexuality.
The family in the long-running case brought by Northern Ireland’s taxpayer-funded Equality Commission is being represented by the Christian Institute. Arguments are being heard over the next few days in Belfast.
The bakery had declined to create a cake bearing the campaign slogan “Support Gay Marriage,” since the message violated the owners’ faith.
The company is owned by the McArthur family, which, the institute said, “has been dragged through the courts in Northern Ireland.”
After incurring an estimated £200,000 in legal bills, about $260,000, Ashers was ordered to pay £500 damages (about $650) to “gay” activist Gareth Lee, whose demand that the baker owners promote homosexuality had been refused.
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.
It was a county court judge, Isobel Brownlie, who originally ruled against the bakery.
While the appeals judges recognized that the bakery did not refuse service because of Lee’s homosexuality, the refusal to create his message was “direct discrimination,” the institute said.
The judges said the bakery may not provide a service “that only reflects their own political or religious message.”
“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 [Gareth] 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: