Politics & Policy

Baking Liberty of Conscience into the Cake

(Otnaydur?Dreamstime)
A marriage controversy causes ire in Ireland.

Atheists and homosexual-rights activists in Ireland are threatening protest marches. A local government in the overwhelmingly Catholic country has fined a homosexual baker in the village of Inch (County Clare) for refusing to produce a wedding cake featuring, on its icing, the inscription, “A man shall . . . hold fast to his wife — Gen. 2:24.”

The baker, Robert O’Riordan, says that he considers the inscription to be an implicit rebuke of his own domestic living arrangement and an imposition on his right as an atheist to refuse assent to “any material endorsement of religious ceremonies.” Mr. O’Riordan regularly bakes other wedding cakes; the difference here, he says, is that the inscription requires him to acknowledge the specifically religious nature of the nuptials, thus infringing on his freedom of conscience.

EDITORIAL: Liberals Against Religious Liberty in Indiana

O’Riordan suggested that the couple hire the bakery at the nearby Supervalu market — but the engaged couple, Padraig Hogan and Sarah Considine, say the supermarket’s quality is not up to O’Riordan’s. The Clare County Council, in issuing the fine against O’Riordan, said that he is violating the Equal Status Acts, which prohibit discrimination with regard to goods and services. The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission has taken up O’Riordan’s cause, arguing that nobody should be forced to participate even indirectly in a religious undertaking that shames his sexual identity.

Irish news outlets have been surprised, however, to see that Dylan Sullivan, a Clare County barrister well known for criticizing the Irish Catholic Church for its alleged liberalization and “increasing moral relativism,” has agreed to represent O’Riordan pro bono. “I think Mr. O’Riordan’s sensitivities are rather feeble,” Sullivan said. “But he has the right to act like a gimp if he wants to. Even a man of his sort has rights, and the government cannot compel a man to act against his beliefs. It would be like the English telling me to kneel for an Anglican communion: I wouldn’t stand for it!”

 . . . Well, Mr. Sullivan is right. Or at least he would be if he actually existed. I invented the entire story above. Sullivan does, however, have a like-minded counterpart in Northern Ireland. His name is Aidan O’Neill, and he is a “prominent human rights barrister” in Northern Ireland. He is representing the Ashers Baking Company against charges by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland that it is illegally discriminating against a would-be client who wanted a cake featuring Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie under the slogan “support gay marriage.”

O’Neill argued, quite cogently, that if these charges stand, then (in the Telegraph’s summation of his report) “Muslim printers could be forced to produce cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed” or “a T-shirt company with a lesbian owner [could be forced] to print tops denouncing same-sex marriage as an ‘abomination.’”

#related#“If supporting same-sex marriage is a protected political opinion, so is supporting traditional marriage,” Simon Calvert, deputy director of the Christian Institute, which is supporting the bakery, told the Telegraph. “Is the commission seriously saying that all business owners have to be willing to promote every political cause or campaign, no matter how much they disagree with it? Does a printer have no right to refuse to print posters for the BNP or Islamic State?”

O’Neill, the human-rights lawyer, further argued that the baker’s stance was akin to that of Sir Thomas More when he refused to violate his faith and conscience by approving Henry VIII’s apostasy from the Catholic Church.

All of this goes to show that it’s not just American hard-line Christian traditionalists, much less bigots or haters, who recognize that the cause of human rights is far better served by protecting religious liberty than by assuaging the hurt feelings of would-be purchasers of non-sustentative good and services.

This endless foofaraw here in the United States over cakes and photographs for same-sex celebrations flared up again in several ways last week — most notably when Indiana governor Mike Pence had the courage to sign a bill guaranteeing religious liberty (note the lack of quotation marks) modeled after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act to ensure that private rights of conscience are protected.

Predictably, the professional victim groups and the media’s anti-amen chorus started their Chicken-Little-sky-is-falling-and-Genghis-Khan-is-at-the-door routines. And the NCAA, bolstering its well-merited reputation for misplaced officiousness and abject idiocy, made noises about taking big events away from Indiana because the state dared to mirror a long-standing federal law that, in turn, essentially codified the nation’s very first and founding freedom.

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce, as Chambers tend to do, ran kow-towingly for the nearest microphone to assure all the trendy-sensitive hordes that it recognizes the new law as “divisive and unnecessary.” As usual, it seems as if corporate bigwigs care only selectively about First Amendment liberties, valuing the Citizens United freedoms that let them buy political influence while being perfectly willing to ignore protections for other speech, religious exercise, and conscience.

Meanwhile, Friday brought a horrendous, indeed vicious, decision by a county court in Washington State ordering a 70-year-old grandmother to pay attorney’s fees to Washington’s attorney general, who sued her because she refused to provide floral arrangements for a same-sex ceremony.

“It’s about freedom, not money,” wrote the florist, Barronelle Stutzman, to the attorney general, Bob Ferguson, back in February. “I certainly don’t relish the idea of losing my business, my home, and everything else that your lawsuit threatens to take from my family, but my freedom to honor God in doing what I do best is more important. . . . You chose to attack my faith and pursue this not simply as a matter of law, but to threaten my very means of working, eating, and having a home.”

Flowers and wedding cakes are neither public conveyances nor necessary for human sustenance; and a choice to hold a ceremony is far from an immutable characteristic like skin pigmentation. There is no shortage of businesses that will gladly serve people choosing non-traditional arrangements. This is not Mississippi Burning; it’s just a conscientious decision not to engage in purely voluntary commerce in a free society.

Despite the conniptions from media, celebrities, and craven corporate chieftains, most Americans understand this. Two polls released in February show overwhelming support — 57 percent or 81 percent, depending on the wording of the question — for religious exemptions for bakers, florists, and the like.

To cite an essay from 2011, long before the current baker’s case in Northern Ireland, by the human-rights barrister Aidan O’Neill — who, by the way, is clearly no conservative:

For the religious, their attitudes and judgments on right conduct are the very opposite of “prejudice” which anti-discrimination law was supposed to be aimed at. And, they would say, there can be no proper comparison between those who would discriminate on grounds of a religiously informed conscience, and those who so act simply from unthinking incoherent prejudice or bigotry. . . . The State’s imposition of a required outward conformity [amounts] to a new form of religious settlement; no longer Anglicanism, but a secularism which would banish religiously motivated action from the public square.

Those who would use the power of the state to force people to act against sincere religious faith should turn around, stop whining, walk down the street to another baker — and get a life.

— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter: @QuinHillyer.

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