Many Christians will have been following the Ashers bakery case with interest and concern, as it has progressed its way through the UK courts. The controversy began when a business run by Christians in Belfast refused to ice a cake with the slogan 'support gay marriage'. The product had been ordered by Gareth Lee, who was a volunteer for the LGBT organisation Queerspace, which although not a political group, was backing the campaign for the introduction of same sex marriage in Northern Ireland. It happened that Lee himself was gay, although that was not known to the owners of the business when they declined his order.
Both the first instance court and the Court of Appeal found that the company had unlawfully discriminated against their potential customer, and many people of faith were relieved when the Supreme Court recently reversed this finding. So what were the legal issues, and what do they mean for Christians generally?
There were two grounds on which Ashers Bakery might have discriminated against Lee: his sexual orientation and political opinion. With regard to the first one, the position was complicated, because Ashers were crystal clear from the outset that they had a problem with the message rather than the messenger. They hadn't known that Lee was gay, and even if they had known, they would have been very happy to sell him their usual cakes. Equally, had a straight person wanted to buy a cake iced with a slogan in support of gay marriage, they would have been politely refused.
The first instance judge found that support for gay marriage was 'indissociably' linked with sexual orientation, and therefore the refusal had been discriminatory. The Supreme Court disagreed however, pointing out that many people who are not gay themselves support the introduction of same sex marriage in Northern Ireland, therefore refusing to provide goods promoting the campaign for legal change was not a policy which only had an impact on gay people.
The Court of Appeal addressed the question of discrimination on the grounds of a belief, and argued that in refusing to take the order, Ashers was discriminating on the basis of political views, given that they would have happily iced a cake with words supporting traditional marriage, or other causes they endorsed. The Court of Appeal also found that icing a cake did not amount to a stamp of approval for any message the decoration might convey; in their view, a baker producing a cake with the colours of a particular football team would not be signalling that he or she was personally a supporter. While the Supreme Court accepted that there might be discrimination on the basis of political views, it would still be too great an interference with the freedoms of the bakery owners to force them to help promote a message which offended their religious beliefs. They were not discriminating against people who supported gay marriage by refusing to do business with them at all, so there wasn't a fair comparison with refusing someone a job because of their political views. All that Ashers was doing was to refuse to help promote a message which went against the owners' conscience.
Many Christians will find this a welcome compromise. Business owners can be reassured that they cannot be forced to assist in specific campaigns or produce particular messages or goods which they consider incompatible with their faith. At the same time however, it is absolutely clear that the law will not tolerate people being treated less favourably just because of their sexual orientation or beliefs. So for example, if a bakery refused to make a birthday cake for a man, just because he a partner in a gay marriage, or a tree-surgeon refused to do a job for a woman because she was known to be an atheist, there would be unlawful discrimination. Given that Christians believe all people to be made in the image of God, and worthy of love and respect, deliberate and gratuitous discrimination is never a Godly response. Furthermore, as both the example of Christ and our everyday experience show, talking to people and welcoming them is a far more productive response than stone-walling or hostility. The lines which have been drawn by the Supreme Court in this case are ones which Christians can and should endorse.
Helen Hall is a lecturer at Nottingham Law School – part of Nottingham Trent University – and an Anglican priest, with an interest in law and religion, family law and human rights.