Fintan O’Toole: Religious conservatives want to have cake and eat it

Verdict in Belfast ‘gay cake’ near but the case dovetails with a wider reactionary argument

As well as the Sesame Street characters, the icing was to have the Queerspace logo and the slogan “Support Gay Marriage”. The evangelical Christian McArthur family, which owns the bakery, refused the order because it would be “at odds with our beliefs”. Photograph: Getty Images

As well as the Sesame Street characters, the icing was to have the Queerspace logo and the slogan “Support Gay Marriage”. The evangelical Christian McArthur family, which owns the bakery, refused the order because it would be “at odds with our beliefs”. Photograph: Getty Images

 

So, this week’s battlefield in the culture war is a cake decorated with pictures of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street. The verdict in the Belfast “gay cake” case is expected on Thursday. Whatever it may be, the case tells us that religious conservatives have a point. And it tells us the point is much more troubling for themselves than they think.

The cake was ordered from the Belfast branch of Ashers bakery chain last year by a gayrights activist. It was to feature at a function organised by Queerspace in Bangor, Co Down, to mark International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. As well as the Sesame Street characters, the icing was to have the Queerspace logo and the slogan “Support Gay Marriage”. The evangelical Christian McArthur family, who own the bakery, refused the order because it would be “at odds with our beliefs”. The activist complained to the Equality Authority, which took the McArthurs to court.

The case dovetails with a wider argument from conservatives: that same-sex marriage threatens religious freedom. This argument is telling in itself. Why have religious groups taken up so fervently the idea that their freedom of conscience comes down in practice to the right to refuse services that might legitimise same-sex marriage?

Because they’ve failed in their main arguments. To oppose equality for a minority, you have to be able to show that some terrible harm to the majority would result from it. And this just hasn’t been possible. Courts and parliaments around the democratic world have looked at the evidence and found there is simply no case to be made that allowing a same-sex couple to marry causes harm to an opposite sex marriage. Hence, the second line of defence: same- sex marriage is bad because it threatens the religious freedom of people for whom it is anathema.

And, as the battle of the cake demonstrates, this is not an entirely self-serving argument. It is in fact crazy that the McArthurs were taken to court for not agreeing to make a cake with a slogan that they find objectionable. “Support Gay Marriage” is an act of expression, and free expression is a basic democratic value. It doesn’t just mean that, within reason, you can say what you want to say but also that you cannot be forced to say what you don’t want to say. So yes, a baker has a right not to bake a cake that expresses support for gay marriage and a priest or pastor has a right not to perform a same-sex marriage ceremony. For the law to suggest otherwise is foolish and intolerant and it does the cause of equality no favours.

There’s a big difference between outlawing discrimination on the one hand and forcing people to express support for things they don’t believe in on the other. No one should be forced against their conscience to participate in, or support, a same-sex marriage.

Equal citizens

But – and here’s where the argument reaches its limits – this has nothing in itself to do with religion. The McArthurs should have the right not to bake that cake, not because they’re Christians, but because they’re equal citizens in a rights-bound democracy. Religious belief is a terrible basis for deciding who has what rights or who can opt out of what law. Why? Because anyone can hold a sincere religious belief about anything. Religious belief can sanction everything from Quaker pacificism to jihadist terrorism, profound commitment to human equality to profound contempt for women, nonbelievers or lower castes. As the US Supreme Court put it in 1990, allowing people to opt out on religious grounds effectively creates “a private right to ignore generally applicable laws” and would thus “permit every citizen to become a law unto himself”.

If religious conservatives have a right not to be pushed around by the State, it’s not because they’re special or because their faith makes them superior. It’s because of equality. Being an equal citizen of a democracy means not being subject to the arbitrary will of any other citizen or group of citizens. It means it doesn’t matter whether people like you or agree with your “lifestyle” or find your views congenial. And this isn’t just a matter of law – it’s a matter of having a civic culture in which people respect difference and cut one another some slack. That goes for religious conservatives as much as for everyone else.

Want to have things both ways

The problem is that religious conservatives have a hard time recognising this. They want to have things both ways, to appeal to a culture of equality and respect for difference whileinsisting on legal inequality and institutionalised discrimination. They want sympathy for being a persecuted minority without themselves showing any sympathy for minorities who have been persecuted for centuries. They want to claim rights for themselves that they will not concede to others.

But those who believe in equality have to rise above anger at this hypocrisy. Who wants to eat a cake that’s not made with love? Who wants to be married by someone who hates your union? Let the sourpusses be.

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