The Ashers Verdict: Becoming “Generous Minorities”
I am offering my comments on the recent Ashers legal case, and subsequent “guilty” verdict, because I believe that both have consequences for community relations here in Northern Ireland, and also because I have a broader interest in what a diverse, tolerant society might look like.
The events which preceded the court hearing, and yesterday’s decision, have already begun to polarize opinion, with some heaping blame upon those with an “aggressive gay rights agenda” and other, socially conservative Christians, framing themselves as victims of “political correctness gone mad”, and perpetuating the idea that modernity, secularism and liberalism are incompatible with religious tolerance.
Such perceptions, whether misplaced or otherwise, should give us little cause for celebration. If the aims of the LGBT ’community/communities’ are respect and equal rights, the Ashers verdict might appear to be an all-out victory, but in the broader scheme of building an inclusive society, I believe it might represent a long-term, strategic failure.
Of course, as is often the case in Northern Ireland, the loudest voices aren’t the only voices. Some others, who may describe themselves as fairly liberal, and who support equal marriage, are troubled by the verdict, and its implications for religious tolerance, and are quietly questioning the logical limits of the legal decision.
Whichever side you fall on, I believe that the 19th May 2015 may have been a short-term victory for equality, but one which simultaneously created a long-term obstacle to tolerance and understanding. The case has been dissected multiple times, and my own analysis adds little to what has already been said.
However, it is worth considering how an order for a cake has caused such deep, social and political tremors. Tremors which might become fault lines if they are not critically addressed.
From what I can gather from their official website, Asher’s market themselves as a bakery, with the only discernible evidence of any religious leanings being found in the ‘About Us’ section of the site. They state this:
“Why Ashers? Well, contrary to popular opinion we are not called Mr. & Mrs. Asher. Our name comes from the Bible. Asher was a tribe of Israel who had many skilled bakers and created bread fit for a king.”(Ashers online).
I see no issue with this; it is not uncommon for businesses to explain their branding and provide some insight into their heritage. It personalizes the company, providing a Unique Selling Point in a competitive marketplace. However, nowhere on the website do Ashers suggest that this short, Biblical reference has any implications for the products which they are willing to offer.
Therefore, it is reasonable to assume, when visiting the website, that Ashers are a professional bakery, keen to solicit custom, as all for-profit organisations are, and who make only scant reference to the private values which might lie behind the branding. The same ‘About Us’ section ends with:
“It just so happens we love to bake. On any given morning, you’ll find our home kitchen filled with the aroma of freshly baked scones or cinnamon swirls as we try out new recipes or experiment with new flavour combinations.
So why not pop in for a visit, we’d love to see you.” (Ashers online).
Based on this information, placing an order for a cake, with the now infamous, pro-gay marriage “Bert and Ernie” decoration, from Ashers, should not necessarily have resulted in a legal battle. Ashers appear to specialize in hand-decorated cakes, and encourage would-be customers to get in touch:
“Looking for something more personal, why not order a custom-made cake in store with our friendly folk behind the counter or build your own at our online shop Build-a-cake.”
However, as has been outlined in various media discussions on the case, Ashers accepted the order, before contacting the customer to explain that they would be unable to fulfil the request. Following this, and, it appears, due to the connections and/or political persuasion of the customer, a lengthy dispute took place, with all of the associated claims around discrimination and tolerance which this sort of issue inevitably raises.
These are important, social and moral topics, and deserve our consideration. We are no longer a society with a clear majority, whose wishes could, under democratic, majoritarian voting systems, secure such wishes, and in doing so, perhaps oppress a range of minority groups.
Instead, Northern Ireland is a society of minorities. We all want different things, and have different, but equally firm, ideas about how best to organize society. Ashers was a small, tangible example of the new, Northern Irish pluralism, and all of the issues which that pluralism raises. I’d like to offer a suggestion for how all sides, the “victors”, “victims” and concerned onlookers might move forward.
The verdict was met first with glee from some areas (DUP and TUV), who quickly re-adjusted their response once they realized that the “not guilty” rumours were unsubstantiated. It was then met with triumphant statements from others (LGBT groups for the most part), who celebrated the “common sense” approach of Judge Brownlie in recognizing discrimination when she saw it. This series of divergent, but equally passionate reactions, are what caused me to reflect on what the Asher’s debate might mean for Northern Ireland.
Ashers are a for-profit, professional business, operating in the centre of a capital city. Unless you know the family personally, it is nearly impossible to glean their religiosity from the company website. It is therefore, as I have said above, not unreasonable to expect that they would fulfil an order for a product which contains a pro-equal marriage message.
However, and this is a contingent statement, there have been murmurings that the customer in question was keenly aware of the family’s religious beliefs, and deliberately chose Ashers as a bakery, in order to provoke a reaction. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, as they are, as I have outlined, operating in a public space, as business. Indeed, provocation can often be necessary for encouraging uncomfortable conversations.
Yet I can’t help but feel there are more respectful, and less overtly combative, ways to progress LGBT causes. We now have a legal decision which prevents businesses discriminating against customers, and this itself is a positive step. Yet we also have a substantial number of Christians, and others, who feel threatened by the ways in which this dispute was conducted.
These Christians, and those ‘others’ who are uncomfortable with the Ashers case, do not, of course, have the right to prescribe how others live their lives, and this extends to the debate over equal marriage. Yet they do have the right to feel part of our society, and it seems that we are rapidly alienating many of our fellow citizens.
It is not for me to advise LGBT groups on how to secure rights and protections, nor do I wish to belittle the very real and ongoing cases of discrimination which many LGBT citizens unjustly suffer, but there is a general piece of advice which we all might take on board, as we adjust to the new, increasingly secular Northern Ireland.
Yesterday’s ruling means that pro-gay rights groups can order similar products from Ashers, and reasonably expect the order be fulfilled, lest another fine be levied. However, and this is my argument: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
Ashers, as far as I am aware, are not engaged in any actions which harm or threaten the rights of the LGBT community. They should obey the law, and obligated to comply with equality legislation. Yet the temptation to exploit yesterday’s ruling should be avoided. We would like to be respected as equal citizens in Northern Ireland. We should extend the same respect to others.
“Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” can be applied to a number of contentious areas of life in Northern Ireland. Just because you can parade up a road, doesn’t mean you should. Just because you can stop a parade, doesn’t mean you should. Just because you can vote to change a flag policy, doesn’t mean you should.
If we are to live together, in a genuine spirit of tolerance, we must transform the zero-sum attitude of “defeating” the other, in order to progress our own agendas. Justice matters, and the struggle should not end, but we should think in terms of twenty, fifty, one hundred years ahead, and build relationships, not future battles.
In short, to paraphrase a local Green politician, to move beyond such fraught, short-term battles, and create a tolerant, respectful society, we must all become “generous minorities” and consider the rights of all, not just the few, when we engage in these debates.