Can freedom of conscience and civil accommodation co-exist?
My youngest son is called Asher.
By the time our surprise number three came around, we thought perhaps maybe we should give at least one of our children a biblical name. We’d seen a movie with a character called Asher, read Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev, and loved that Asher was one of the (few) sons of Jacob to receive a patriarchal blessing instead of a curse.
‘Asher’s food will be rich,’ says Jacob from his deathbed, ‘he will provide delicacies fit for a king,’ (Genesis 49:20). His blessing is expounded in Deuteronomy 33:24-25, saying:
Most blessed of sons is Asher;
let him be favoured by his brothers,
and let him bathe his feet in oil.
The bolts of your gates will be iron and bronze,
and your strength will equal your days.
So it’s no wonder the name Asher is growing in popularity, even as a business title for, say, cake-baking.
Yesterday, Belfast’s Ashers Bakery lost an appeal after being found guilty of discrimination when they ‘politely refused’ to bake a cake promoting same-sex marriage. In their decision, the Belfast Court of Appeal stated 'the reason that the order was cancelled was that the appellants would not provide a cake with a message supporting a right to marry for those of a particular sexual orientation. This was a case of association with the gay and bisexual community and the protected personal characteristic was the sexual orientation of that community. Accordingly this was direct discrimination.'
As expected, the Equality Commission, which supported customer Gareth Lee’s petition, expressed its thankful support, while the McArthur family expressed profound dismay. Still, others ruminated on the consequences of such a decision.
The Irish Times quotes gay rights activist Peter Tatchell, saying, ‘Although I strongly disagree with Ashers’ opposition to marriage equality, in a free society neither they nor anyone else should be compelled to facilitate a political idea that they oppose,’ he said.
It may come as a surprise that I generally don’t like talking (let alone writing) about politics. It tends to leave a bad taste in someone’s mouth: the writer, the reader, the awkward side-glancing crowd gathered around extended-family dinners.
But as you may have gathered, I am a bit opinionated, just a smidgen loud, and at some point in time, I do find myself talking (then writing) about politics, knowing full-well I have a high likelihood of eating my hat. So it’s with a bit of hesitancy I write this:
Perhaps they should have just baked the cake.
And maybe they should’ve won on appeal.
If it were me, maybe I would have chosen to accommodate a customer.
But if it were me, I might have felt entrapped by a no-win situation.
People of faith who live, work and serve in the public square will eventually find themselves at the threshold of such a choice. We all must decide for ourselves what promoting means, what political ideas we can be perceived as to support, what wars to wage, and what hills to die on.
For many Christians who work for or with faith-based organisations, that decision may be made for us. We can seek to be winsome to ‘win some’ for Christ, but we are also expected to draw a firm line in the sand. We can seek to be accommodating and at the same time be judged by our brethren for being lukewarm (or the dreaded ‘ear-tickling’).
It’s a catch-22 for people of any religious faith, but the ones in the news today are Christians, forcing us all to consider what choice we will make when the time comes, and why.
I abhor the idea of compelling anyone to act against their conscience, especially those who feel a directive from the Lord predicates each and every decision we make. But that same conscience cuts both ways, no matter our line of work.
What daily decisions do we make in business, manufacturing, hospitality and even the church that niggle at our souls, despite our declarations of holy obedience? Where do we spend our money, and where does that money end up? Where does our food come from and who is the one picking it, cleaning it, cooking it? What vaccines do we inject in our bodies and how are they made? And who sits at our table, who do they pray to, how have they chosen what food to partake in?
Are we making room for them, and when do we stop? Can we allow room for freedom of conscience and accommodation to co-exist? Even if the law does not, will we as followers of Christ make room for both tension and grace? And if not, will we accept the consequences of our own civil disobedience?
That’s a lot of questions, and I’m sorry to say, not many answers. But if nothing else, we can learn from both Ashers Bakery and Mr Lee that living by our principles may cost more than a few thousand pounds: it may cost us our personal freedoms.
But, if we take Him at his Word, isn’t this what Jesus has asked of us?