Two recent court judgements have shown that, although the tide has not completely turned for hard-line LGBT advocacy groups, it may well have reached its high-water mark. Job 38:11 comes to mind: ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt?’
A little while ago, an employment tribunal ruled that a London NHS Trust had ‘directly discriminated against and harassed’ a Catholic nurse, Mary Onuoha, who was forced to resign after refusing to remove her necklace bearing a small cross.
In another fairly recent judgement, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) dismissed Gareth Lee’s complaint against Ashers Bakery, in which he claimed they were discriminating against him by not producing a cake with a slogan supporting gay marriage.
In the aftermath of Nurse Onuoha’s case, Tim Dieppe, Head of Public Policy for Christian Concern, appeared on the James Whale radio show to participate in an analysis of the verdict.
Although Whale is a well-known atheist, I still found it staggering that he openly declared: ‘I don’t understand this need that, if you have faith in a God, then you have to go showing off about it.’
Well, religion (and the right to manifest it) is as much a protected characteristic as sexual orientation, age or race. As a comparison, it doesn’t take a prophet to predict the public outcry and widespread calls for resignation that would ensue, if a Christian radio host had denounced gay people ‘coming out’ by saying, in a similar vein: ‘I don’t understand this need that, if you are LGBT, then you have to go showing off about it.’
In the case of Ashers Bakery, the ECHR ruling closes a long and difficult chapter in their history. Over seven years, they unfairly bore the stigma of being branded homophobic for doing no more than to refuse to publish a slogan with which they, as owners, didn’t agree.
Gareth Lee lost the ECHR case because, unlike other plaintiffs before that court (e.g. Schalke and Kopf who took the Austrian Government to court), his lawyers had never previously suggested in any British court that current UK law itself was in violation of the European Convention of Human Rights
It was only after years of insisting that Ashers Bakery had violated his convention rights as implemented in UK law and losing at our Supreme Court that his lawyers reverted to an insistence that UK law itself was in violation of his convention rights.
So, his case was effectively calling upon the European Court to saw off the self-same branch of UK human rights legislation upon which he had been sitting in litigation for seven years. They rightly refused.
For those who are still unconvinced of the validity of Ashers Bakery position, here’s a comparison.
There is a well-known Jewish bakery in London that produces a wonderful array of great food. Their challah bread is especially good.
For my next birthday, I’m thinking of buying a hamper of pastries from them. I’m sure they are completely okay with supplying their baked goods to Christians.
But, guess what? If, at Easter, that bakery refuses my order for a ‘Jesus is the risen Messiah’ cake, I can’t take them to court.
They are not discriminating against my religious belief. They are simply exercising freedom of speech. Or, perhaps more accurately, freedom from compelled speech.
The complaint against Ashers Bakery was rejected on the same basis. We all have the right to freedom from compelled speech.
To exercise that freedom doesn’t make you a religious bigot and it doesn’t make you homophobic.
In conclusion, both cases underscore the legal reality that religion is no less protected in law than race and sexual orientation.
Despite this, if those who disagree with this settled position are adamant enough to continue to discriminate against Christians and lose more and more cases like these, then so be it.
David Shepherd is an active member of Beacon Community Church in Camberley and was formerly a Deanery Synod Representative in the Diocese of Guildford.