The way the cake crumbles

We have just seen the end (I hope!) of one of the silliest and most vexatious court cases to have plagued this country in a long while. It started when a gay man walked into a baker's shop in Northern Ireland and ordered a wedding cake. So far, so normal. But he wanted the cake to be iced with the slogan "Support Gay Marriage!". The bakers, a husband-and-wife team, were (like many people in the province) ostentatiously religious Ulster protestants. This the customer almost certainly knew. He was obviously spoiling for a fight and he got one.

Non-UK readers need to know that Ulster protestants are a rather archaic lot by general British standards. They tend to have views about gay sex that are more common among African Christians than European ones. Many members of the Church of England (including quite a few like myself who identify as evangelical) have no deep-seated objections to legally recognised gay unions with or without a church blessing, although there might be disagreements about whether this should be called marriage or something else. But this Ulster pair predictably thought otherwise and refused to produce a cake iced with a slogan that went against their own beliefs. The aggrieved customer then sued them, claiming that they had discriminated against him on the grounds that he was gay.

The case went through several different courts and probably made a lot of lawyers rich. The fact that the defendants were Christians and claimed that their views on gay marriage were part of their religion certainly did not help their case. Christians are rather unpopular these days, and people are surprisingly ready to deny them the freedoms that they would unhesitatingly grant to the irreligious. No one after all would expect Richard Dawkins to bake a cake iced with the words "God is Great!". Nor would a gay baker be expected to produce a cake iced with "All gay people will go to hell". But it seems that if a person's conscience is affected in any way by his religion, suddenly his freedom of thought and speech becomes a lot less valuable in many people's eyes.

Finally the case came up before the Supreme Court (a newfangled body that has replaced the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords) where one of the judges pointed out the obvious fact that all the previous judges had overlooked, namely that the couple had not refused to serve the man on the grounds that he was gay (which would have been discriminatory and illegal) but purely on the grounds that the slogan they were being asked to ice onto the cake went against their conscientious beliefs. She also reminded the court that there is no law in the United Kingdom that can compel a person to write or publish a political slogan with which they disagree. How come none of the judges in the lower courts noticed this? It would have saved everyone a lot of money if they had.

The irony is that if a straight man had wanted something like that iced on his wedding cake, because he had gay friends and wanted them to enjoy the same rights as himself, he would have received the same dusty answer from these particular bakers. The difference is that he would not have been able to allege discrimination and waste so much court time. He would probably just have gone to a different baker.
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