|What should happen when religious freedom and LGBT rights clash?|
Two decades after the end of the Troubles and Northern Ireland remains the most socially conservative part of the country, a place where fire-breathing Protestants and orthodox Roman Catholics are willing to temporarily put aside generations of acrimony and division in order to form a united front against any hint of progressivism. It is therefore unsurprising that prejudice against the LGBT community remains so strong there, and Christians of every stripe must bear some of the blame for propagating such bigotry.
As a Christian myself, I believe the Church needs to urgently address its approach to the LGBT community if it is to remain relevant and fit for purpose in the 21st Century. Opposition to same-sex marriage isn't just hateful and narrow-minded, but it is also theologically unsound, relying as it does on plucking a small number of biblical texts out of the context in which they were written and manipulating their original meanings. In recent centuries the Church has publicly apologised for its past crimes, from ingrained anti-Semitism and the endorsement of slavery to the persecution of scientists who questioned the fundamentals of Christian orthodoxy, and the test for the 21st Century Church will be whether it can similarly repent of the institutional homophobia that continues to plague vast swathes of Christendom.
Nevertheless, whilst I fundamentally disagree with the anti-gay attitudes of the owners of Ashers Bakery, I must also wholeheartedly defend their right to hold such views. By ruling that they were unlawful in refusing to decorate a cake with a politically motivated slogan, the courts have potentially opened the floodgates to a situation whereby businesses are compelled to comply with the wishes of their customers, even in highly distasteful circumstances.
It may be difficult to have much sympathy for the regressive views of Ashers' owners, but what about cases where a member of a minority group is the victim of this legal authoritarianism? Should a Jewish business-owner be forced to serve a Holocaust denier or a supporter of Hamas terrorism? Would the courts force a Muslim bakery to ice anti-migrant and Islamophobic slogans onto a cake? Such situations seem to be clear violations of personal conscience, potentially causing a great degree of distress and discomfort to the businesspeople involved.
The Ashers case is no different, and today's decision is therefore a sad defeat for freedom of speech and belief. As Peter Tatchell writes in The Independent, people should be free to discriminate against ideas that they disagree with, and although no business should be allowed to refuse service to LGBT customers based on their sexuality, they should also not be forced to endorse a certain view on political issues such as same-sex marriage. It is right that our society becomes more inclusive and tolerant on matters of equality and sexuality, and areas such as Northern Ireland need to reject the social conservatism that remains dominant and makes LGBT people feel like second-class citizens. However, in doing so it is crucial that we do not turn our back on the long-cherished freedoms that form the foundation of our democracy.