Religious liberty victory in Belfast bakery case

October 17, 2018

Last week, Britain’s Supreme Court ruled to uphold freedom of expression for the evangelical owners of Ashers Bakery in Belfast, Northern Ireland. As The New York Times reported, “The British case centered on Ashers Baking Company in Northern Ireland, which in 2014 rejected an order by the activist Gareth Lee for a cake with the message ‘Support Gay Marriage.’ He also wanted images of the ‘Sesame Street’ characters Bert and Ernie, considered by some to be gay icons.”  

Amy and Daniel McArthur, the owners of the bakery and committed evangelical Christians, could not in good conscience fulfill the order for Lee. In response, Lee, along with the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, sued the McArthur family, claiming that they had discriminated against him because of his sexual orientation. A Belfast County Court and the subsequent Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland ruled in Lee’s favor, but the Supreme Court overturned the previous rulings.  

According to the opinion of Britain’s Supreme Court, the Masterpiece Cakeshop case from the United States played an essential role in their decision. The court opinion stated, “The important message from the Masterpiece Cakeshop case is that there is a clear distinction between refusing to produce a cake conveying a particular message, for any customer who wants such a cake, and refusing to produce a cake for the particular customer who wants it because of that customer’s characteristics.”  

In December 2017, the ERLC, among others, filed an amicus brief in support of Masterpiece Cakeshop. In June 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled 7-2 in favor of Masterpiece Cakeshop, indicating that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had violated Jack Phillip’s right to the free exercise of religion. Phillip was happy to serve customers from all sorts of backgrounds but declined to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple due to his Christian beliefs. Phillip did not discriminate against a person. Rather, Phillip could not endorse a message with which he disagreed.  

In a parallel way, the McArthur family did not refuse to serve Lee. If Lee had wanted any other baked good, the McArthur family would have been happy to serve him. In spite of what Lee might have perceived to be discrimination, Ashers Bakery was not discriminating against him as a person. Instead, Ashers Bakery declined to be compelled to produce and support a message that violates their evangelical beliefs.  

In the case of Ashers Bakery, liberty prevailed for all. Just as Ashers Bakery should not be compelled by government authorities to endorse or express a message contrary to their evangelical beliefs, so also, other business owners should not be forced to support a message that violates their conscience. Even Peter Tatchell, who is well known for his support of the LGBTQ community, stated that the Supreme Court’s ruling was a “victory for freedom of expression.” The legal decision in favor of Ashers Bakery applies equally to bakers who would refuse to express or endorse a message that was anti-LGBT. Neither the evangelical baker or the LGBT baker should be forced to express or endorse a message that is contrary to their beliefs.  

As a final point, it is important to note the international reach and consequences of legal decisions made in the United States. At the time, it would have been hard to imagine that the Masterpiece Cakeshop case would have implications for a bakery in Britain, but as this case has demonstrated, the current struggle to define and defend religious liberty in the United States has global implications. To this end, as evangelicals, we pray and labor for a public square governed by justice and equity that acknowledges the legitimacy and limits of government in the areas of religious expression. In the case of Ashers Bakery, we agree with the Evangelical Alliance of Britain’s statement, “the Supreme Court’s judgment was a win for everyone because no one should be forced to say something that they disagree with.”  

Casey B. Hough

Casey B. Hough is lead pastor at Copperfield Church in Houston, Texas, and a Ph.D. student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He also blogs regularly at www.CaseyHough.com. Casey and his wife, Hannah, have three sons and two daughters.  Read More