Saturday, 12 July 2014

The Right to be Wrong

This week, there was a news story about a small chain of cake shops in Northern Ireland, which face potential legal action for refusing to create a cake with a slogan supporting gay marriage, due to the religious beliefs of the company’s owners.  A same-sex couple placed an order for the cake, the company responded, saying that they were unable to take the order, and gave the couple a full refund.  The company assumed that was the end of it, but then received a letter from a solicitor, demanding compensation and threatening them with court action for discrimination.

I have to be careful here, because it would be easy to misrepresent myself, and just to establish my moderate, socially liberal credentials, I will state now that I am completely in favour of equality when it comes to sexuality.  I am entirely in favour of gay marriage, especially in religious ceremonies, and see no reason whatsoever to judge another person on what they get up to in the bedroom, assuming that they’re above the age of consent, and it’s all consensual.

However, I’m also completely in favour of equality when it comes to freedom of expression of religion or lack thereof.  There have been several high-ish profile court cases in which gay couples have come into direct conflict with Christians over the last few years.  The B&B case in which a gay couple were refused a double-room is a comparatively recent and well-known one, and a few years back it was Catholic orphanages refusing to give children up for adoption by same-sex couples.  My opinion of this new case is very much the same as my opinion on these older ones.

There is a clear and direct conflict of interests here, in which the rights of one group directly infringe on that of the other, and vice-versa.  As I said above, I do not pay much heed to the biblical injunctions against homosexuality, but some people do.  I believe that they’re wrong, but I also believe that they have every right to be wrong.  On the other hand, I also believe that anyone should expect equal treatment, irrespective of their sexuality.  But there still doesn’t have to be a conflict of interests.  I don’t understand why the couple involved in this new case can’t get a cake elsewhere.  I struggle to believe that there are no other cake shops in their area, and by using one of these after they’d been refused, they would have avoided a messy conflict.  I can understand that they might have been hurt by the refusal, but ultimately I don’t believe they have the right not to be.  The problem with free speech is that people are free to speak, and if we don’t like what they’re saying, we just have to go and stand somewhere where we can’t hear it.  There are plenty of people out there whose beliefs and opinions I find odious and offensive.  I believe that those people have a right to be odious and offensive, but the last thing I’d want to do is help them earn a living by buying their cake!

If there were no other cake shops in the region, I would say ‘Sorry cake people, but these guys want cake, and you’re the only ones who can provide it, so I’m afraid you’re going to have to.’  If on the other hand, there are plenty of other places willing to serve them without generating a conflict of interest, then they should go that way instead.  I feel the same way about the B&B and the orphanages.  If all orphanages in the UK were Catholic, then I would insist on them allowing gay couples to adopt.  Since they weren’t, I would expect gay couples to go elsewhere instead of causing conflict when no conflict is necessary.  There seems to be an ‘All us or all them’ approach going on, in which only the complete capitulation of one side or the other can be considered a satisfactory conclusion.

To me, this case and the others mentioned are the equivalent of a fundamentalist Christian going into a pub, only to discover that it’s a gay bar.  However, instead of quietly withdrawing and going to the pub down the road, he loudly insists that everybody else refrain from any shows of physical affection or any other ‘gay behaviour’ while he’s there, and that they join him in the singing of a few hymns.  Then, when asked to leave, he immediately reports the place to the police for discrimination.

The couple could (and should, as far as I’m concerned) have publicised the fact that this company don’t want the business of gay people and their supporters, and the company would likely have lost money because of it.  That’s fine, that’s people exercising their own freedom and voting with their feet.  Using the law to try and force someone into doing business with you is going to do no-one any good at all, besides a bit of petty point scoring, and all it does is inculcate and strengthen the siege mentality that seems to have set in amongst a lot of Christians, who feel that their rights to freedom of religion are under constant and inexorable attack from groups whose rights always seem to trump their own. 

I don’t know whether this particular case was a deliberate attempt to make a point, but whether it is or not, all it serves to do is make certain Christian groups even more hostile to homosexuality.  It comes down to whether you believe respect can be demanded, or must be earned.  I strongly believe the latter, but at the moment, some gay rights groups seem to be demanding respect through the medium of the law, when conversation and a clear show that they respect the rights of religious groups would do infinitely more good, and be far more likely to lead to reciprocation.  As with so many areas of life, it would be far better to educate, not legislate, be prepared to give a little in order to gain much, but apparently even this gentle and progressive compromise isn’t enough for some.  And, of course it must be said that it’s just as true the other way round.  The church must clearly show that it respects the rights of gay people, and is willing to engage in sensible dialogue with them and not merely in antagonistic ranting, and generally the mainstream of Christianity is doing this reasonably well, but this is spoiled by a small but loud minority on both sides.

And to clarify, I would not support the same company in refusing employment to someone on the grounds of their sexuality.  People have the right to work, and to be considered for work on no other grounds than their ability to do the job.  I do not believe they have the right to force their business on a company (or individual) who doesn’t want it, and they’d be much better off taking it elsewhere.  Personally, I wouldn’t want to buy a cake from a company who hated me, and was being forced to deal with me very much against their will.  Who knows what they might do to it or put in it?  Not that’d it’d be very Christian to do so, but there you go.

Basically, this country is big enough for us all to rub along smoothly without stepping on each other’s toes, and interfering in each other’s lives, beliefs and rights.  Unfortunately, some counter-productive people insist on creating friction where none is necessary, and all it does in my opinion is harm the whole machine and help no-one at all.

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