October 15, 2018

‘Gay Cake’ Cases and the Strength of Christian Legal Armies

Ashers bakery owners outside the UK Supreme Court. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Wire/PA Images.

In UK and US supreme courts, freedom of speech and religion has been the defense of bakers who oppose same-sex marriage. It’s no coincidence.


By Nandini Archer (left) and Claire Provost (right) / 10.11.2018

The owners of Ashers bakery in Northern Ireland, who refused to make a cake with the words ‘support gay marriage’ on it, won their appeal at the UK Supreme Court this week. The court ruled unanimously that this refusal was not discriminatory.

A spokesperson for the UK LGBT rights group Stonewall said the ruling was “a backward step for equality” which may be used “to justify even more discrimination at a time when LGBT people still face exclusion, abuse and discrimination every day.”

In a similar case earlier this year, the US Supreme Court ruled in favour of a Christian baker in Colorado, whose Masterpiece Cakeshop refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the ‘gay cake’ cases used freedom of speech and conscience arguments to defend the bakers, who oppose same-sex marriage. Rights activists warn the verdicts could set new precedents for when businesses can discriminate against customers.

But what else do the two cases have in common? They show the strength of organised and internationally connected Christian legal armies with growing track records of successfully defending opponents of sexual and reproductive rights in US, UK and other courts.

In the US Supreme Court case, the plaintiff, baker Jack Phillips, had been successfully sued in Colorado after he refused to bake the cake for a gay couple in 2012.

He was represented by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), described as an anti-LGBT “hate group” by the Southern Law Poverty Center.

In the UK case, the Belfast bakery owners received a £500 damages award from their county court after they refused to bake the cake in that case, in 2014.

They were supported by the Newcastle-based Christian Institute – a group that’s been described as an “allied organisation of ADF International,” ADF’s global wing, which also opened an office in London last year.

On Twitter, ADF called this week’s UK Supreme Court decision “a great win for freedom”, while the Christian Institute referred to it as “thrilling news,” stating that “equality laws cannot be used to make people say things they don’t believe. That has always been our position.”

Previously, the two groups supported the case of a London registrar who refused to officiate for same-sex civil partnerships. The Christian Institute supported that case throughout, while ADF submitted legal arguments once it reached the European Court of Human Rights.

Sharing cake. Photo: Flickr/Loewyn Young.

Same-sex marriage was legalised gradually in the US, starting with Massachusetts in 2004. In 2015, it was legalised nationwide as the result of a Supreme Court ruling.

In the UK, Northern Ireland is the only part of the country where same-sex marriage isn’t legal. A bill to change this was blocked from moving to the next stage in the UK parliament earlier this year.

Internationally, freedom of speech, religion and conscience arguments are increasingly being used by conservative groups to challenge anti-discrimination and equality laws.

“Cases like these, funded by large and wealthy Christian lobby groups, taken up as an attempt to fan the flames of a culture war, are becoming far too frequent,” Liam Whitton from the charity Humanists UK told us, asking: “What good are rules and regulations if they are treated as ‘opt-in’ by religious believers?”

Last year, ADF International’s executive director Paul Coleman wrote that the Colorado and Belfast bakers’ cases represented “a fork in the road” and that they would “shape the directions of Western freedoms in the years ahead”.

But, at the US LGBT rights group Equality Federation, Mark Snyder said that despite “emboldened” attempts from conservative groups to “undermine our core values of fairness and equality”, resistance to these efforts is also strong.

“I think there has been a renewed awakening to the importance of intersectional movement building,” he said, “as we see that it is the same cynical politicians and far-right activists attacking women, immigrants, and LGBTQ people.”

Originally published by openDemocracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.