GAY CAKES: A MODEST PROPOSAL (revised) There’s a test case for human rights and community possibility underway in northern Ireland this week. The Equality Commission is going to court to test the law regarding whether or not it was ok for a bakery to refuse to bake a cake celebrating same sex marriage. I think it's courageous and vital for the Commission to do this. The bakery is owned by Christians who hold to the view that same sex marriage is sinful, and that to bake the cake would be to endorse sin. Cake-gate has become the latest in a long round of skirmishes over rights, responsibility, and who gets to define Christianity in my home society.
I'm confused about the legal complexity here, because if it is ruled that no business can refuse to carry out a service relevant to what it already offers, what protections would be offered to members of historically marginalized communities? As the counsel for the bakery has noted, could a gay baker be forced to bake a homophobic cake? Or a Muslim printer to produce cartoons of the prophet? I don’t know, but I certainly don’t want to support legislation that would infringe upon the right of individuals to endorse or not endorse whatever message they want to. But I don't think that baking a cake or printing a poster necessarily implies endorsement (as Stephen Greer suggests, adding a simple disclaimer to receipts along the lines of publications which don't take a view on the advertising they carry could be a simple solution). But I think in the context of a historically privileged group challenging a historically marginalized one, it's more important to support legislation that prevents anyone, particularly members of historically marginalized communities, from being refused service on grounds of who they are.
So here’s a modest proposal:
1: No Discrimination on Identity Grounds.
The law in the UK says, and should perhaps be strengthened in saying, that no one can be refused service on grounds of their identity, and that historically marginalized communities should be specifically named in this legislation, including at least the following: gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, sexual and gender identity, physical difference, religious or political belief. In places where no such legislation exists, it should - and if it can be strengthened it should be, and if there are historically marginalized people who believe they are not adequately named by it and who need protection, the categories should be extended.
2: If You Want an Exemption, You Should Say So; then we can decide not to take our business elsewhere.
In response to a ‘religious exemption’ bill, Oklahoma State representative Emily Virgin recently said, “If the state of Oklahoma is going to protect discrimination, then at the very least, businesses should be required to own their bias, and post it publicly for the world to see.’ Her proposal was that “Any person not wanting to participate in any of the activities … based on sexual orientation, gender identity or race of either party to the marriage shall post notice of such refusal in a manner clearly visible to the public in all places of business, including websites. The notice may refer to the person’s religious beliefs, but shall state specifically which couples the business does not serve by referring to a refusal based upon sexual orientation, gender identity or race.” [Revision 10pm 3/25: This law has not been enacted in Oklahoma, and Rep. Virgin's proposal may well have been part of the reason. See my comment below.]
In the northern Irish case, if a business wishes to refuse to endorse a message, as the bakery did in this case, it would be mandatory for that business to publicly state their exemption. For example, the bakery would have to post on its website and premises that “We do not provide services for same sex weddings.” This would protect the conscience of the business owner, and also prevent people being embarrassed or emotionally abused when unwittingly ordering a cake from people who don’t like them. [Revision in light of comments below]: I don't think this is the best strategy, as it opens up the possibility of simply creating monuments to bigotry and actually attracting commerce to businesses whose practices exclude; it will be unnecessary anyway as the equivalent of a religious exemption bill in northern Ireland is bound to fail. But strategic boycotts of businesses who refuse to provide inclusive services, which have so often worked in the past as a way of changing public consciousness, would be so much easier to carry out if those businesses were required to name their prejudices openly.
3: Identify Inclusive Businesses: An Opportunity.
This, of course, leads to an opportunity. Not only would we know who to not do business with, this would also encourage other businesses to also advertise that they do provide services on an inclusive basis. Someone should be printing up rainbow stickers for Belfast bakeries, restaurants, newsagents, pubs and wherever else to put in their windows alongside the TripAdvisor tags.
4: Commit to Honesty about History.
Christians in northern Ireland are not being persecuted. The LGBTQ community is not dominating the culture. No one is being forced to accept things as a matter of conscience that they don’t want to. As a northern Irish Christian and member of the LGBTQ community, I have benefited both from Christian privilege and experienced the marginalization and abuse of a homophobic culture whose prejudices were enshrined and reinforced by the Christian institutions I lived in. I own both of these parts of my story. The way of Jesus is not about keeping power over others so that we don’t need to be offended. It is about co-creating the beloved community, for the common good. The argument here is not between Christians and LGBTQ people, because some of us LGBTQ people are also Christians. It is (at least partly) between one kind of Christianity and another. I only ask that those who speak publicly about this take a look at the real history of Christianity and LGBTQ people in northern Ireland. The power dynamic has always been in favor of the Christians, and of a certain kind of Christian at that. It’s time for a re-balancing. That’s not just sociologically inevitable, but, I believe, more in tune with the teachings of the founder of the faith.
5: There is a gift for us all here.
In northern Ireland, we slowly learned – and are still learning – that meeting across lines of difference not only helps us reduce violence, but gives each of us a gift of understanding ourselves better. Every time I have stepped out of my comfort zone and met someone different, I experienced more light. Sometimes it is frightening, and yet it still opens doors toward becoming more human. The way of cultural change and the way of institutional and legal change aren’t necessarily the same way. So let the law protect against discrimination, encourage the culture to be clearer about where inclusion is happening, and allow for the possibility that the Cake-Equality-Court case is an opportunity for meeting difference with openness to your own transformation. We LGBTQ people are at least as much a gift to the church – and the human race – as people who bake nice cakes.