“I want a wet cappuccino” declares the customer, “so you want a latte?” I reply. “No” they restate, “a wet cappuccino”. So I give them a wet cappuccino – which is really just a latte.
Burger King have long marketed their burgers with the tag line “Have it your way”, a riposte to the supposed inflexibility of McDonald’s. The customer can choose what they want and how they want it, within reason and usually at extra cost. Recently they changed the slogan to ‘Be your way’, and the shift marks not only a development of their advertising but the further incorporation of individualism into everyday life.
It’s not so much ‘I think therefore I am’, but ‘I choose therefore I am’. The liberty to decide what to do, how to do it, or whether to do it – whatever it may be – has become society’s fundamental and inalienable right. Not just the customer is always right, but the customer has all the rights.
Cases on both sides of the Atlantic have brought the question of religious liberty to the fore in recent weeks. There was the case in America of a dog walker ‘firing’ a customer because they supported the legalisation of marijuana. Also in the States was the related issue of whether an employer should cover medical insurance for treatments which they had religious objections to. And in Northern Ireland a bakery is being taken to court by the Equality Commission for refusing to back a cake decorated to advocate for the legalisation of same sex marriage.
Each of those cases is different, the dog walker is being ridiculous, it is simply unhelpful, intrusive and frankly impossible to regulate whether services or goods are provided to a customer on the basis of their views. You cannot know what they think about myriad issues.
If you’ve followed the Hobby Lobby case and decision in the States the first thing apparent to observers in the UK is the bizarre idea that it is employers responsibility to provide medical insurance, and therefore there is the potential for discretion in what is covered. The case was not over whether the refusal to provide some of the contraception treatments was based on a religious objection, but whether that objection could be held by a for profit company and if it could whether there was a less burdensome way for the end to be met without infringing that religious expression. The religious objection to providing four out of 20 of the forms of contraception had already been accepted for religious institutions and non-profit organisations on the grounds they were, or could fairly be considered to be, abortifacients. The court’s majority opinion held that the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act provided a broad conception of religious freedom and as it applied not only to individuals but non-profit organisations it should also apply to for profit corporations. This means that companies can have religious views and those religious views are entitled to expression and protection.
That is very different from the legal situation in the United Kingdom where although limited exceptions are enshrined in law religious beliefs are mostly dealt with on an individual level. For example, there are exemptions for doctors with an objection to performing abortions. Likewise, religious expression is considered at the level of the individual and their belief as regards their own expression of that belief, but various cases (particularly those relating to B&Bs) have shown those beliefs cannot be used to restrict services to certain people based on their sexuality, gender, age, religion, or disability. (There are common sense allowances for religious organisation to restrict employment to people who share the beliefs of the organisation.) Importantly in the cases of Eweida et al decided by the European Court of Human Rights last January the court held that what matters is that a belief is held by the individual to be of central importance, and not that it is widely considered to be of such importance, nor held by a significant number of religious adherents to have such a position. For example, the wearing of a cross is important to some Christians but not to all, this does not stop it from being a legitimate manifestation of belief.
This brings me to the bakery in Northern Ireland. And to show that it has nothing to do with any of the above examples. The customer was ordering the cake for a group campaigning for same sex marriage and it was to be iced with Bert and Ernie from Seasame Street with the wording: ‘support gay marriage’. The coverage of the case has inferred that the customer was gay, but there is no need for that to have been the case, and the objection of the bakery was not to serving someone who was gay but to producing a cake which supported a political campaign they objected to. In other words, had the customer been heterosexual but ordering exactly the same cake the bakery would have had the same objection and refused to produce the cake.
However, the question this raises, and to bring us back to Burger King, is what freedom to companies have to do things their way, or to ‘be their way’? Or, is the freedom of organisations and companies defined by their obligations to serve the freedom and choices of their customers and clients?
As I understand the law, a request for materials relating to a political campaign can be refused, so a printer could choose not to print a poster campaigning for the reintroduction of the death penalty, or for the reintroduction of grammar schools, or for a certain political party. Assuming I am correct – and it’s very possible I’m not – it is incredulous that the Equality Commission in Northern Ireland are getting involved in a case which should fall into that category.
But it also raises a wider point, and one that the US Hobby Lobby decision brought into view, can organisations have moral and religious view points, or a encompassing worldview, and can that view be a factor in how they operate? The irony of the case in the States is that many on the left who reacted with horror at the judgement have long criticised the profit alone mentality of corporations, and for whom the idea of companies with a social and moral conscience should be appealing. And yet, we disagree with each other as to what that social and moral conscience should entail: seeking to do good is not enough if we do not agree on what the good is.
Which is why we end up resorting to further ingraining individualism and choice as the primary mantra of society, and when that choice is disrupted we cry havoc.
So in a world where we are allowed to choose what we want, as long as that doesn’t restrict another person’s right to choose, do choices motivated by faith end up privatised or privileged? The upcoming parliamentary debate on assisted dying has seen calls for religious believers to back out of the debate, inferring that they are somehow privileged, and Emma Barnett wrote in the Telegraph at the weekend that faith is something people shouldn’t have to deal with at the train station on their way to work.
She was referring to the recent trend for Jehovah’s Witnesses to stand outside train stations, both in London and other major cities across the UK with Bibles, tracts and magazines. They don’t approach members of the public – so Barnett’s complaint of having faith forced on her is nonsense – but wait to be approached. While not replacing door to door evangelism this new tactic is a way of seeking to reach more people with their message.
Because faith should be public. If you believe something to be true there’s an incumbency upon you to let other people know that, as Gary Barlow sings “Tell me if you found God and he gave you hope, would you tell the world or save your soul?”
Faith isn’t something separate that can be taken off like a knitted jumper or put on for special occasions, maybe like a Christmas knitted jumper, it is part of who you are. And if that belief is something that you believe others would benefit from you will share it, and if you believe it has something to say about how society should be ordered, you will say it.
To not allow faith to play a full role in public life would be to allow the belief that God is irrelevant or non-existent to triumph. Under the guise of neutrality one set of beliefs would be dictating to others which parts are allowed to be displayed in public.