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A slice of discrimination

22 May 2015

THERE is not much Anglican religious news around this week. I would not care to speculate why the papers failed to climb all over the news that there will be no new Bishop of Oxford for a while, but they did not. Only John Bingham, in the Telegraph, reported it at all, and not even his professionalism could make the story seem to matter.

Sometimes we might yearn for the more unbuttoned style of American religious journalism: I loved the explanation, by Dan Schultz, a Baptist pastor who used to write for The Guardian, who told the readers of Religion Digest what the problem is with American religion: "The conservatives don't believe the liberals are actual Christians, and the liberals think the conservatives are flaming judgemental assholes."

This problem is not entirely unknown outside the United States, even if the metaphor is not one to be examined literally.

The back story to this outburst was that eight conservative churches in a small Arizona town have teamed up to offer a series of sermons denouncing the errors of "Progressive Christianity" - represented by the Methodists down the road.

I can't say that I think this is a bad way of selling the message. I think religious life in many towns would be greatly enhanced if the sermons were explicitly directed at the errors of the Christians down the road, with names and examples, and advertised as such in advance. These would differ from present practice only in that the passage in the sermon explaining that Jesus loves them, really, would have to come at the end, when there was a chance that it might be taken seriously.

 

THERE was, though, the news that Ashers Baking Company in Belfast had lost the "gay cake" discrimination case brought against it for refusing to supply a cake showing Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street and the words "Support Gay Marriage".

There is an interesting and, I think, important case to be made in principle that the bakery should have been able to refuse this order. There are two grounds for this argument. The first is simply pragmatic: bringing this kind of case fuels the resentment and suspicion of the State felt by some Evangelical Christians. It is not as if you need to do much to waken the suspicions of an Ulster Protestant. I think it quite likely that this will lead to a backlash in the equal-marriage referendum south of the border, where apparently the immigrant churches are campaigning for a "no" vote.

The second ground is an argument from free speech. There is an important difference in principle between demanding that someone not discriminate in the provision of goods and services, and demanding that they express a belief they sincerely believe to be wrong.

Had it been I, or Canon Giles Fraser, who ordered that cake, I think the bakery should have had a right to refuse our business, just as it should have a right not to print propaganda for Sinn Féin, the BNP, or any other political position of which it morally disapproves.

Unfortunately for this line of argument, the judge concluded that the bakery-owners had - contrary to their protestations - known that the man who ordered the cake was gay, and that their actions therefore amounted to discrimination against the customer rather than against his opinions.

There is a further difficulty there: suppose the opinion itself had been an expression of membership in a protected category - if a Muslim had walked in and demanded a cake iced with the declaration that there is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet - should the bakers be compelled to ice it? I suspect that, legally, the answer is yes.

There will inevitably be a great deal of grumbling at this verdict. But, if the Christian Legal Centre had any imagination, it would find instead a humourless atheist bakery on 22 October, and ask it to ice a happy 6019th birthday cake for the Earth, dated according to Archbishop Ussher. Then they could sue that bakery for religious discrimination in turn.

 

IF THAT is confusing, consider the adventures of Juan Vicente Córdoba, the Bishop of Fontibón in Colombia, who told a conference there that one of Jesus's disciples might have been gay, and Mary Magdalene a lesbian.

"No one chooses to be gay or straight," Bishop Córdoba said, according to a report on the Crux website. "One simply feels, loves, experiments, is attracted, and no attraction is bad."

The next day, it seems that someone reminded him of official Roman Catholic teaching on these subjects. The Bishops' Conference published his apology for "unfortunate colloquial expressions", which might have been a retraction, or might just have referred to the derogatory term he used instead of "gay".

Next time, dear Bishop, ice your message on a cake.

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