A Baker, a Sign Maker and a Printer walked into court

A printer, a sign maker and a baker walk into a courtroom. And if this sounds like the start of a joke…

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The printer stands accused of refusing to print a leaflet backing the death penalty and therefore committing political discrimination against people who want the death penalty reintroduced. And presumably also discriminating against dead people.

The sign maker is charged with racial discrimination – he wouldn’t make a sign for a shop that wanted to put up a ‘no blacks allowed’ notice, and therefore is guilty of discriminating against people who are not black.

The third is a baker who wouldn’t bake a cake with a slogan supporting the introduction of gay marriage. This, apparently is discrimination based on sexual orientation, and religious because the bakery cited the religious beliefs of the owners as behind the refusal, and political discrimination, because they’re disadvantaging people with a particular political view.

And this is one big joke. But not the kind with a witty punch line, but the sort that leaves you hanging your head in despair. These three examples all surely exist in the category of ‘you couldn’t make it up’. For the first two I have made them up, but the bakery is a real example, and they are now being pushed to court by the Equality Commission in Northern Ireland.

First of all let us be clear what this is not. This is not a case of a Christian refusing to serve someone because they are gay. Those ‘no blacks allowed’ signs were taken down for a reason, and more recent equality legislation extended protection and you cannot refuse to a good or service to someone because of their sexual orientation (with protection also for age, gender, religion, marital status as well as race). There’s been controversy over this, and concern for what happens when these protections might come into conflict, but in Great Britain at least the legal situation is clear.

In this situation the sexuality of the customer is not relevant, the customer could have been gay or straight, the issue was not who the customer was but the cake they were ordering. If the cake was for a same sex wedding ceremony it would be a clear case of discrimination, that they made wedding cakes for straight couples, but not for a gay couple.

Secondly, I should clarify I have a very limited understanding of the law in Northern Ireland on this point. It differs from Great Britain and includes provisions relating to religious and political discrimination which I imagine were designed due to the particular history of the nation and the religious and political tensions that run through it.

As far as I understand the law in Great Britain (and of course it may be different in Northern Ireland) one is free to choose not to publish political campaign material if they disagree with it. So I can choose whether or not to print a poster advocating the death penalty, or cancelling international development, or I can refuse to print a sign for a political rally. Yes, this is a form of discrimination, in the same way a shop not serving alcohol to someone under 18 is discrimination, but it is legal.

As far as I can see the choice not to bake a cake with a campaign message in favour of gay marriage is part of this latter category, it is the choice not to endorse a political message, and not the discrimination against a person on the basis of a protected characteristic.

Who, exactly is being discriminated against here? The customer for not being served, the baker for being told their religious views should not be allowed into play, or the cake for not getting Bert and Ernie gracing its icing?

The bakers were not discriminating based on the sexuality of the customer because both gay and straight people campaign for the introduction of same sex marriage. This wasn’t religious discrimination because the religion of the customer had no bearing on whether or not they were served.

The provider’s beliefs did make a difference but is this now suggesting that people are unable to make decisions over what they do or don’t do based on religious belief? The most obvious example is whether the same approach in Great Britain could be taken to force a doctor who objects to abortion on religious grounds to carry out abortions because to not do so would be religious discrimination.

I suppose the logic of the Northern Ireland Equality Commission is that in refusing to make this cake on the basis of their religious beliefs Ashers bakery were discriminating against people who did not share their religious belief. A comparison to this logic would be to take a Christian newsagent to court for not selling pornography which they object to on grounds of their faith. The newsagent down the road who took the same decision but without any religious motivation would be free not to sell pornography. Absurdly, to apply the regulations in this manner would be discriminating against the Christian newsagent for taking action on account of their religious beliefs.

Comparisons are frequently made between LGBT rights and the civil rights, some of which are fair, others are questionable. In this case, the comparison would be for someone who refused to print a ‘no blacks allowed’ sign to be guilty of discrimination. This is ludicrous, nonsensical and of course shouldn’t be allowed.

Neither should this current action against the bakers. If it is allowed to continue it is shutting down public debate, and a supposedly independent equality commission is acting as a coercive force stopping those who disagree with changing the law from the freedom to stand by that political opinion.

This is not about gay rights, it is not about homophobia. It is not even just about religious freedom (although it certainly is about that), it is about ensuring that fundamental freedoms of political disagreement and debate are not undermined and dissenting voices protected and not prosecuted.

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Read more:

My colleague in Northern Ireland has also posted on his blog ‘Are the Equality Commission baking mad?’

Peter Ould posted similar thoughts to mine on facebook

Legal rights and religious wrongs

Yesterday’s European Court of Human Rights judgement on Eweida, Chaplin, Ladele and McFarlane didn’t get the attention it might otherwise have received. For the mainstream media this was the news story getting all the coverage with Steve Chalke relegated to a small sidebar. But within the Christian world the cases got a distinct shove to the sidelines.

In response to the cases I want to make two legal points as best as I feel able to from a layman’s perspective. And then two theological reflections about where the cases and the judgement leave us.

Summary of judgement

Firstly, what did the court decide? It determined that one of the four claimants, Nadia Eweida, had been subject to an unlawful restriction of her freedom to express her religion. In the other three cases it found no unlawful restriction, and refused a claim for direct discrimination on grounds of religious belief for Lillian Ladele.

Legal view

Nadia Eweida should have been allowed to wear her cross to work but Shirley Chaplin, a nurse, was reasonably prevented from doing so. The crucial legal point affirmed by the judges in Strasbourg was that this was not dependent on whether wearing a cross was a necessary, or even generally recognised, aspect of Christian belief. Rather, and importantly, what matters is whether the action arising from belief is important to the person in question’s religious belief.

The desire to wear a cross for both Eweida and Chaplin passed the manifestation test that I set out last week, and the actions of their employers was deemed to be interference with that expression of belief. The key question was whether that interference was justified. This is where I think the court took a very simple to understand common sense stance. In the case of Chaplin health and safety concerns were considered justified while for Eweida the desire for British Airways to maintain their brand image was not. Added to this, British Airways were inconsistent in their accommodation of religious belief and had allowed the uniform code to be modified to satisfy other religious beliefs.

The second interesting and important point that comes from the judgement comes in the case of Lillian Ladele. Both she and Gary McFarlane requested an opt out from certain duties in their work because of their beliefs about homosexuality. For several reasons I consider Ladele to be the far more interesting and valid case, not least because she was employed by Islington Council prior to the introduction of civil partnerships and her job was changed to include their registration as well as marriages. In both cases no users would have been restricted from accessing a service, but their employers refused the request for an opt out because it would go against their equal opportunities policies.

In the case of McFarlane, he choose to change the remit of his role by training in psycho-sexual counselling, in doing so he raised the prospect that he might be unwilling to provide this service to gay and lesbian couples. In doing so he showed intent to restrict the service he provided on the basis of sexual orientation. A further point in his case was that his scruples applied only to gay and lesbian couples and not to heterosexual couples outside of marriage, which strikes me as an inconsistent application of biblical sexual ethics, although following the reasoning above the court accepted his stance constituted a manifestation of belief. For these reasons, I am satisfied that the court reached the correct decision in finding that Relate acting fairly.

The European Court of Human Rights allows the relevant authorities, in this case the employers and the UK courts and wide margin of discretion when determining how to protect convention rights. Therefore in both these cases the court found that the actions of the employers in their equal opportunities policies, and the courts in backing them, were reasonably because they were in pursuance of protecting the rights of others on the basis of their sexual orientation.

The question that arises following the decision to place the actions of Islington Council in the case of Ladele within this ‘margin of appreciation’ is what would be needed to fall outside of this margin? The court has acknowledged that there is a need to balance the protection of different convention rights, but in its decision leant heavily towards protecting sexual orientation rights without any guide to how religious expression would be equally protected. I am not sure, if this judgement is confirmed by the Grand Chamber, whether there is any action that an employer took to protect sexual orientation that would be deemed an unjustified interference in the manifestation of belief.

Theological reflection

Both the pairs of cases, raise theological as well as legal issues. And these come into play layered over rather than in conflict to whether or not they should have won. For what it’s worth I think both Eweida and Ladele should have won, but I think sometimes we can get caught up in the legal rights and wrongs of specific cases that we detach it from the our faith.

On the cases of the crosses, I don’t wear a cross, I don’t think it’s important to my belief. But I accept that for some it might be, a friend coincidentally wore a pair of rather large cross earrings yesterday. But that wasn’t a statement of faith. And I think it’s a mistake when we make a big deal of things that aren’t a big deal. And whether or not we can wear a cross is not a big deal.

That’s the first theological point. The second is bigger, and harder to define. It’s the question of whether cases such as these are helpful or a hindrance to public Christian witness. I think when cases are brought that are unlikely to ever win but instead used to promote the perspective that Christians are being discriminated against they are a poor weapon which leads to a culture war which leaves far more loses than winners.

The Clearing the Ground report issued by Christians in Parliament last year commented: “The cyclical strategy of generating-fear-to-fuel-funding-to-fight-cases (cases that are often doomed from the outset) is a recognised part of the culture war situation in North America. Although such an approach can have the effect of giving Christians a sense of ‘taking a stand’ against a tide of secularism, with protest as a primary mode for political engagement, it is clear that it simply reinforces a victim mentality, polarises society, and does not work.”

But sometimes there are legitimate grievances, and how do we respond in those cases? What of Lillian Ladele who was pushed into a job she never applied for, doing something that conflicted with her deeply held belief, in a situation that could have been resolved without anyone deprived from getting a civil partnership, and the only cost Islington Council’s equal opportunities policy?

I think in these cases we have to act with humility, we have to exhaust all possible options. And I think sometimes we need to turn the other cheek.

It’s a thought I can’t get away from at the moment, that when faced with a situation when we are sure we are right how do we prioritise relationships without giving up on what we believe. And how in it all do we live out the reality that we are created in the image of God, how can we be attractive to the world that needs to know God in whose image we were created?

It’s been one of those days

FNT compassionIt was one of those days when I all I could find to take down details of a voice mail message was a paper plate.

I suppose today started at 10.30 last night. I got an email. The Times had the story: Steve Chalke supported active monogamous gay relationships, you can read all about it in Christianity Magazine. I knew a day destined to be busy because of the European Court of Human Rights judgement on four religious freedom cases was about to get a whole lot more hectic.

And through the day one thing turned over and over in my head. If we’re to call for civility in society and civility in dealing with situations where Christian beliefs rub up against differing prevailing views in society, then we need to model civility

Civility doesn’t ignore difference, but it seeks a way for us to live together despite our differences.

I work for the Evangelical Alliance (I might as well be honest about my affiliation) and that put us at the centre of today’s storms. When the role of faith in public life is under question, and potential legal coercion, it is a subject of interest – we want to articulate in a calm and reasonable manner what the upshot of these cases is, and also what it might not be. And when a figure with huge profile in the evangelical world makes statements such as Steve Chalke’s today, then it is something requiring a response.

But how to respond? How to speak honestly and thoughtfully on an issue such as homosexuality which carries with it such depth of personal experience and highly charged emotions. This answer is patently not to ignore it and hope it will go away. The answer is to search once again for that balance that lies at the heart of the Christian life: truth and grace.

It sounds trite, it sounds simple, it also sounds like a way to take a swipe at someone while parading Christian credentials. But I cannot think of two things that are needed more, in either of these discussions. But it is still how we should try and respond. In neither case would everyone be pleased, in neither case would everyone think the content or the tone was correct.

Disagreement might not always be nice. And in fact it rarely is. But conflict is also part of life and we cannot ignore it. I’m not going to set out the theological issues in play here, because I am both ill equipped and I think Steve Holmes has provided a strong but careful critique of Steve Chalke’s position. What I am going to float is that having a view about what is or is not the best way for a Christian to live does not stop Christianity, or any particular church from being inclusive.

Because if you take the opposite argument to a logical conclusion it makes it hard if not impossible to promote any values within the life of the church. This is not what Steve Chalke was saying, but the critique of the church for holding a certain view of homosexuality does not hold water if to change it is solely in pursuit of inclusion. The church believes in discipleship towards the likeness of Christ, and that means there are things we should do and others we should not. And it promotes a way of life in accordance to those goals. What this is definitively not is a threshold of moral achievement that allows us to call ourselves Christian or a ticket into heaven.

Instead it is building a community where we live in full acknowledgement of our frequent ability to get things wrong, but also set our sights on something else.

How the church can be more welcoming, more inclusive, is a challenge that cannot be ignored, and it is vital if we are ever going to get close to civility. But it cannot mean that the church just changes its teaching so not to risk alienating those who disagree. It is also where the difficult task of speaking truthfully comes in, being prepared to speak when we disagree, and most of all not forsaking our relationships with one another for the sake of being right.

That’s a tough gig. But it’s one the church has to rise to.