Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
After two Supreme Court rulings voted in favour of bakery businesses who refused to make a custom cake for a same-sex couple due to the owners’ religious beliefs, many are stating this sets a precedent for discrimination in the future. But, does it really?
Before we get to the opinion side, I think it’s best to understand the events which took place. In Northern Ireland, Ashers Baking Company was taken to court after it refused the order from a gay rights activist. The customer in question wanted a cake that featured Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie with the campaign logo “Queerspace”. The bakery’s head office considered the order ‘at odds with our beliefs’. A complaint was made to the Northern Ireland’s Equality Commission, stating the bakery allegedly discriminated against the customer based on his sexual orientation.
A three-day case took place where the bakery owners stated they weren’t aware of the sexuality of the customer. The court ruled in favour of the customer, finding the bakery guilty of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.
The owners appealed against the ruling, but the appeal court rejected the claim. Subsequently, the owners appealed to the UK’s Supreme Court, where the ruling fell in favour with the bakery’s appeal. After a well-publicised deliberation the judges ultimately concluded that the owners did not refuse to fulfill the order because of the customer’s sexual orientation.
A comparable case occurred in the United States in 2012 when a same-sex couple visited Masterpiece Cake shop in Colorado. In a similar turn of events, the owner informed the couple his businesses would not provide cakes for a same-sex wedding due to his religious beliefs. The couple complained to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, where a lawsuit was pursued. The Colorado Office of Administrative Courts ruled in favour of the customers on the basis that the Masterpiece Cakeshop violated Colorado’s anti-discrimination laws. Masterpiece Cakeshop appealed the ruling, an application that was later rejected as the court decided the owner could not cite his religious beliefs in his refusal to provide a service to a same-sex couple.
Much like Ashers bakery, this case was elevated to the US Supreme Court where it was decided in a 7-2 decision to accept the bakery’s stance. However, the ruling was classed as ‘narrow in scope’ since the court didn’t decide whether the owner could refuse service to gay individuals based on their religious beliefs, but instead ruled that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had not adequately considered the religious beliefs of the owner in the initial case.
There seems to be two areas of discussion related to these cases. The first revolves around whether there was discrimination against a person based on their sexual orientation. The second concerns whether private businesses can invoke “freedom of religion” and “freedom of expression” as acceptable excuses for denying services to a customer.
I am unimpressed with the “freedom of religion” arguments that are being made, but “freedom of association” is another matter entirely. There also seems to be a misunderstanding of both cases. In both situations the customers were not denied a product because of their sexual orientation, but due to the service that they wanted provided to them. Both bakers were still willing to provide a cake to the customer but was not willing to decorate it with a pro same-sex marriage message.
An artist should have the right to refuse a certain type of service they do not wish to participate in. As stated, both businesses in this case didn’t discriminate against either customer. They merely declined to decorate the cakes with a particular message – a message that was fundamentally at odds with their beliefs. I’m thoroughly uncomfortable with the idea of any governmental body forcing a private business to do this.
Due to the reasoning behind the refusal, there is no doubt that emotional harm, offence and anger can result from such cases. However, harm is also being placed on individual freedom for private businesses. I see these rulings as profoundly important for all of us, whether religious or not. Using the law to demand an individual participate in an activity to which he or she has a moral objection sets a dangerous precedent for future generations. If the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the customers, questions would be raised about the rights given to private business owners. A vegan photographer should have the right to refuse service promoting animal cruelty. A Jewish book publisher shouldn’t be forced to publish a book promoting pro-Nazi material. A Christian baker should be allowed to refuse to create a pro-gay marriage cake decoration.
However, just because you weren’t provided the service you requested, it doesn’t mean you can’t get that service. When one vendor refuses a couple a design, there are numerous others lining up to provide their services.
Distinctions in these cases are needed. Discrimination against individuals should be prohibited, but we shouldn’t prohibit opinions.