As I watched thousands of stern faced supporters of Asher’s Bakery gay cake scrap fill the Waterfront Hall in Belfast to capacity last week it occurred to me to wonder if they had any families of their own?
There they were, over 2,500 of them, gathered to sing hymns and give a stern faced show of support to the beleaguered Northern Irish bakery after an action was taken against the company by the Equality Commission for refusing service to a gay customer.
Having initially taken the order from Gareth Lee, Asher’s eventually refused to decorate his cake because it depicted the beloved Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie below lettering that read “Support Gay Marriage.”
As religious blasphemy goes, this one would be fairly low on most people’s register I would have thought, but Asher’s still found it impossible to accommodate him.
If we decorate this it’s as if we are endorsing it, they argued. It would be like surrendering our principles, they said. If there’s one thing we don’t like to do in Northern Ireland it’s surrender.
But you’re a bakery, the Equality Commission countered, that means you’re a business, not a church; you bake cakes, you don’t sell religious blessings.
You have to admit, it’s a fairly persuasive counterpoint. But if your hard line Christian faith teaches that gay people are not your equals and gay marriage is an abomination, it doesn’t really matter how persuasive any counterpoint is.
Hoping to end the stand off, some within the gay community in Northern Ireland argued there was a halfway point the bakery and the gay customer could have reached. What that half way point was they failed to suggest. And how could they, because when a business asks a customer to look elsewhere because they find them religiously objectionable they are breaking the law.
A barrister representing the County Antrim bakery said on Monday sounded the alarm. If they lost the discrimination case there would be ominous consequences for shop owners, they thundered. It could mean a Muslim printer could not refuse to print a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad.
This is specious nonsense. In Islam you cannot put the image of Muhammad on anything, never mind a cake, so this case could never arise, and there’s already law in place already to prevent it.
And it’s insufferable nonsense to claim that gay people are the opposite of Christians, despite what some Christian fundamentalists apparently think. Marriage isn’t an opportunity to cauterize, it’s a personal and public celebration, and the gay customer was simply asking for a celebratory cake, not an opportunity to offend some hard line Christians (many Christians support marriage equality, after all).
To underline what’s at stake here it’s important to know how to identify if your religious freedom is being oppressed: if you are prevented from attending a religious service; if you are not allowed to marry the person you love; if you are forced to use birth control contrary to your religion; if you are not allowed to pray privately at home or in public; if you are not allowed to purchase, read or possess religious books or materials; if you are not allowed to teach children creation stories about your religion in your own home.
If none of those apply to you, then you are not being religiously oppressed.
In business you are selling goods and services, not blessings. If you cannot treat the public – all of the public - with the same degree of courtesy and service because of religious reasons you’d be much better off opening a church instead of a bakery.
And, when it comes to it, are Daniel and Amy McArthur of Asher’s bakery entirely without sin themselves, that they can stand in final judgment of their friends and neighbors? Doesn’t Matthew 23:27 say something about that very impulse?
They’re a handsome young couple with a child, the McArthur’s. If their child grows up to be gay one day they’ll certainly have some explaining to do.
It’s precisely because they don’t anticipate such a possibility occurring that they’re so quick to stand in judgment of other people’s children.
Meanwhile the DUP, Ashers political advocates, have tabled a bill exactly like the Indiana one that has appalled the nation by being narrowly targeted against gays.
By allying themselves to a political party with a history of sectarianism and a longstanding hostility to gay rights, Ashers have proved they are standing on more than principle now. It’s becoming clear they want to help legislate a new apartheid state where gay people can be legally discriminated against in every walk of life without legal consequence.
You’d think after three decades of conflict with its roots in discrimination the DUP would be more circumspect about preparing a bill to discriminate against gays.
Had Ashers simply refused to bake a cake they would be able to make the case that animus toward gays was not a factor. But by working in cahoots with the DUP they have shown themselves to be a front in a larger struggle to beat back advances on gay equality.
They will lose.