Tolerance or quasi-totalitarianism?

Not long ago, we heard the news that the management of the small, family-owned Ashers baking company in Northern Ireland had lost its appeal against a ruling that declared it had “directly” discriminated against a gentleman who requested a political cake. While same-sex marriage is not legal in Northern Ireland, a cake had been asked of the McArthur family baking company by Mr. Gareth Lee with words expressing disagreement with current law. As law-abiding citizens and Christians opposed to the slogan’s sentiment, the family decided to exercise their freedom of conscience and politely refuse the exchange.

The ensuing court interpretation of the law, however, had other ideas, instead declaring that the company must be punished for exercising freedom of conscience and corrected with a fine.

By dictating that the small company must by law use its resources to partake in an exchange involuntarily, this was effectively a ruling that declared private businesses to be subject to whatever public authorities decide is the most appropriate conduct of business. This is a set precedent that, no matter how the ruling’s proponents may defend it, is unquestionably dubious with many unknown ramifications. Interpreting the law in any manner that crushes private entities’ rights to freedom of conscience, of religion and of expression inevitably prompts questions. As the famed gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell noted after the verdict, the “dangerous, authoritarian precedent” gives way to forcing homosexual business owners to print homophobic slogans should they be asked, or to be subject to legal action. This is not the genre of a “free” society we should tolerate and certainly not one we should celebrate.

In regard to the supposed discrimination and intolerance at hand, as the couple at the heart of the baking company repeatedly made clear, they would equally refuse to write a spiteful message about homosexual people – and, by any reasonable view, should be free to refuse to recreate such a message and whatever else they wish. Should there have been direct discrimination against Gareth Lee, it would be somewhat of another issue. However, refusing to recreate a political slogan in favour of changing the law to legalise same-sex marriage was quite clearly done on the basis of the message and not the customer. It is difficult to believe that the management would have agreed to produce the exact message were the customer heterosexual, and indeed made more difficult to believe by the fact that the company had happily served Gareth Lee in the past. The “discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation” is consequently perplexing to an observer of the case. Given the evident lack of discrimination against Gareth Lee himself, the ruling should only strike us as oppressive and dogmatic.

If one asserts that there should be neutrality on the part of businesses when it comes to political messages, where is the line eventually drawn? To demand a pro-choice woman to create memorabilia suggesting women who have aborted are murderers – because it is merely a subjective political issue – is surely a substantial curtailment of someone’s freedom of conscience. We should live and stand for the society in which we would like to live, and does coercion that compromises an essential tenet of freedom really belong within that vision?

With there existing sufficient private businesses to supply and cater for people’s varying demands, there is surely no mandate for coercing one small family-owned business into something against their will.

Regardless of how anyone thinks the baking company should have responded to Lee’s initial order, the issue’s very subjectivity is what makes freedom of expression all the more important to defend. One person’s gay marriage cake is another’s pro-imperialist cake, another’s pro-life cake. When freedom of expression is defeated, everyone loses.

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