A Belfast Scene

A Strange Land

Date: Tuesday, 01 November 2016
Author: Rev David M Blunt

The civil war in Syria has resulted not only in many deaths but also the tragedy of four million refugees and twice that number who have been forced to move elsewhere within the country. While it often goes unacknowledged, there is another way in which people can be displaced, and it also very sad: they have not had to leave their homes or their homeland, but somehow their homeland has left them.

Christians in the UK, especially older ones, are doubtless beginning to feel like that. They wonder whether they are living in the same country in which they grew up. Many of the old landmarks are still there – the monarchy, parliament and other institutions – but morally the country is hardly recognisable as the one they knew in their youth. 

Secular

The Bible says that righteousness “exalteth a nation” but sin is “a reproach to any people” (Prov. 14:34), yet the influence of secularism is such in our country today that Christian moral principles are being excluded from the public sphere, where they rightly belong. Moral absolutes no longer have a place, and there is an unwillingness to say that one code of ethics is better than another. In the name of ‘equality’, people are affirmed in whatever lifestyle they have chosen, irrespective of how perverse and destructive it may be to themselves or society. This attitude pervades government policy, the range of public bodies and the judgments of our courts.

The new morality is spearheaded by an ongoing effort to normalise homosexuality and silence all opposition to it, despite the Word of God being wholly negative about it. Sadly this campaign received a boost last week when the Court of Appeal in Belfast rejected the appeal by Ashers Baking Company which was heard in May. 

Discrimination

Ashers is owned and run by the McArthur family, who are Christians. They were taken to court in 2014 in an action pursued by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. Their ‘crime’ was refusing an order for a cake which had been placed by a Mr Gareth Lee on behalf of a group calling itself ‘QueerSpace’. Mr Lee is a homosexual; that was unknown to Ashers at the time, but it would not have been a problem for them. The group for which Mr Lee was acting advocates on behalf of homosexuals; in itself that would not have been a problem either. The difficulty for Ashers was not the customer or the cake: it was the slogan they were requested to ice on the cake, namely “Support Gay Marriage”. The McArthurs were being asked to assist in the promotion of something which conflicted with their Christian beliefs.

The McArthurs were charged under the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2006. They were supported by the Christian Institute but were found guilty of direct political and sexual orientation discrimination. Because of the serious implications of this judgment for our religious and civil freedoms, especially the freedom of conscience, an appeal to the Supreme Court is being considered. It is encouraging that Northern Ireland’s Attorney General John Larkin views the case as being about “expression”, and whether it is in fact lawful under the Province’s constitutional law for Ashers to be compelled “to articulate or express or say a political message which is at variance with their political views and in particular their religious views.”

The Court of Appeal agreed that what Ashers did amounted to ‘direct discrimination’. The three judges reasoned that the benefit from the slogan on the cake could only accrue to homosexual or bisexual people, and therefore Ashers, in declining to fulfil the order, were discriminating against such people. In their opinion, “There was an exact correspondence between those of the particular sexual orientation and those in respect of whom the message supported the right to marry. This was a case of association with the gay and bisexual community and the protected personal characteristic was the sexual orientation of that community.”

Rights

By now it is obvious that the rights of homosexuals are more protected in law than the rights of Christians. Presumably that was not the actual intention behind the legislation of recent times but when the ungodly are in charge we should not be surprised when it turns out that way. We remember Orwell’s political satire Animal Farm, where the original principle, “All animals are equal,” ultimately became, “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.” The ‘liberal’ version of liberty has a nasty habit of turning into a tyranny.

This is not the first time the courts have ruled in a prejudicial way concerning the Christian attitude to homosexuality. In 2012 Transport for London carried a message on its buses sponsored by the pro-homosexual group Stonewall, which stated, “Some people are gay. Get over it!” A few weeks later it refused to carry a message from the Christian group Core Issues Trust, which declared: “Not Gay! Ex-Gay, Post-Gay and Proud. Get over it!” When Mike Davidson, who leads the Trust, took the blocking of their adverts to the High Court the ruling was that the ban was lawful because the adverts would “cause grave offence”. Yet the fact that Christians are greatly offended by the promotion of homosexuality seems to count for nothing.

A worrying aspect of the Ashers case is the role of the Equality Commission, which spent nearly £90,000 of taxpayers’ money in pursuing it. Though same-sex ‘marriage’ is illegal in the Province, and though it has been either voted against or blocked in the Northern Ireland Assembly five times since 2012, this quango presumably believes that businesses located in the Province have no right not to support the idea. It is shameful that such a body can interfere with our liberties in this manner.

Sympathy

It is notable that in the wake of the judgment the public has been largely sympathetic to the McArthurs. Also the First Minister of Northern Ireland Arlene Foster spoke of her “enormous sympathy” for the family and described the Commission’s actions as “quite troubling”. Among the media the Daily Telegraph asked: “Why should freedom of conscience always be trumped by anti-discrimination rights? Why is the law not protecting the rights of this Christian couple?”

Interestingly a number of liberal figures and even some prominent homosexuals have voiced their concern at the threat the judgment poses to our liberty of conscience. Peter Tatchell, for whom we hold no brief, wrote: “It is an infringement of freedom to require businesses to aid the promotion of ideas to which they conscientiously object.”

Remedy

Is there a remedy for this conflict? The Court of Appeal thinks it has one. In its judgment it states: “The answer is for the supplier of services to cease distinguishing, on prohibited grounds, between those who may or may not receive the service. Thus the supplier may provide the particular service to all or to none but not to a selection of customers based on prohibited grounds. In the present case the appellants might elect not to provide a service that involves any religious or political message. What they may not do is provide a service that only reflects their own political or religious belief in relation to sexual orientation.” In other words, when running a business, Christians should either put their beliefs to one side or cease from providing any service which might cause them problems in today’s world.

This is no remedy at all. If the existing law really means what the judges have said it means, then the law must be changed. Society needs a moral code, but who decides what is right and wrong? To us it is obvious that it is not man but the God who made man that sets the standard for what is allowable and what is not. His rule is there in the Scriptures and we ignore it at our peril – and to our confusion.

For many nowadays, ‘discrimination’ is the only sin left. Yet we cannot avoid discriminating, or having moral preferences and making moral choices: it is part of what makes us human. In our fallen state we always tend to what is sinful and harmful; the law of God is there to curb our sin, and to provide the pattern for a wholesome and harmonious society. We need to bring it back into our public life. Only then will Christians be able to follow their conscience in the commercial space without suffering penalties; we will no longer be living in a strange land.