A simple but important religious freedom case has reached the Supreme Court. Ashers, a bakery in Belfast, appealed against a £500 damages award under British and European Union laws for discrimination on sexual orientation grounds. Its owners, who are devout Presbyterians, had declined to provide a cake decorated with the words “Support Gay Marriage” to an activist wishing to celebrate Northern Ireland Anti-homophobic Week.
The main legal argument turned on whether refusing to reproduce a pro-gay message desired by a gay activist discriminated against the latter if the bakery would have refused to provide it for anyone, straight or gay; and if so, whether this compromised freedom of speech or religion as defined by the European Convention on Human Rights.
We expect a result later this year. But despite the beguiling Ulster tones of barrister David Scoffield QC on behalf of the bakery (which you can catch on the Supreme Court’s website), this is not the most interesting feature of the affair. The moral and social stakes are, in fact, higher.
Upholding the decision, and thereby restricting protection of conscience to the limited exceptions state law provides (for example, in abortion), has wide implications for religion generally, affecting Catholics as much as Presbyterians. In order to avoid suit for religious discrimination, for instance, a Catholic religious printer could presumably not refuse to produce a book of Muslim apologetics, or a Catholic screen-printer a T-shirt promoting Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion.
More importantly, this case raises in unusually stark form the issue of how the law ought to treat individual conscience. The Catholic answer is clear. The legitimacy of the state’s call for obedience depends on its respect in return for the need for individuals to be guided by their own conscience, at least where that conscience is not opposed to morality or Church teaching. Requiring people to do or say something contrary to that conscience is unacceptable.
Unfortunately, most discrimination lawyers – and discrimination law is an area where secularism is even more in evidence than elsewhere – say exactly the opposite. Conscience for them is opposed to, and needs to be mistrusted by, the state.
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