Christians cannot be allowed to discriminate against gays – #gaycake

This article first appeared at the STV news website.

Over the weekend, I had the kind of birthday that is impossible to ignore.

The big round 50 is one of those things that need to be marked somehow. That’s certainly what members of my congregation seemed to think and I found myself whirling and birling round my church at a birthday ceilidh on Friday night and then being presented with a cake and a card and a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday to You at the end of the Sung Eucharist on Sunday morning.

Those who organised this staggered up the aisle after the last hymn carrying the largest, stickiest and most colourful cake they had been able to procure in all of Glasgow.

Not content with an off-the-peg cake, they had decided to go for something a bit more made to measure; something a bit more personal. And so, acknowledging my role as a gay rights activist as well as someone who runs a cathedral congregation, they appeared with a cake bearing a joyfully garish rainbow.

It was my gay cake moment.

Je suis le #gaycake.

But what if those involved in the production of my cake had refused? What if they had been allowed to say no to producing such a cake for an LGBT-identified church leader?

There would have been two obvious consequences. Firstly, I might have woken up on Monday morning a little slimmer, which would have been no bad thing. But secondly, I would have woken up on Monday morning back in the days when I could be discriminated against by those providing goods and services.

Now, a cake seems a trivial matter and a cake such as the one that all the fuss is about in Northern Ireland even more so as it bears the images of a couple of Muppets. However, discrimination is a serious business and every little moment where one is treated as less than someone else in society adds up.

I don’t want to go back to the bad old days when people could refuse to serve you based on their perception of your sexuality (or any other protected characteristic).

I’m sure the gay cake case has been determined correctly by the courts in Northern Ireland, for if the judgment had gone otherwise then the legislation which protects people from prejudice in their daily life would not be worth the vellum it is written on.

Many people are now asking whether there should be a conscience clause to “protect” people from having to provide goods and services to people whom they do not wish to do business with.

Such a clause would mean the effective repeal of legislation that enables me as a gay man to do business in the world in the same way as a straight person. It means that you can’t charge more for a service to a woman than you do a man (or vice versa). It means that you can’t refuse to have a black couple in your B&B because you don’t want “people like that” under your roof.

We must remember through all this debate that racism was justified for decades on religious grounds.

I find it puzzling that some who would be appalled at religious views being used to justify racist actions seem to think that religious views are a legitimate reason for someone opting out of identical legislation preventing discrimination against those of us who are gay.

Actually, saying I find it puzzling is a bit of a euphemism. In truth, I find it terrifying.

It is almost as though a nice white “Christian” heterosexual couple could never be the perpetrators of prejudice.

If gay people are going to be able to live in a world where they are not discriminated against then godly Christians don’t get to choose not to have that law themselves.

The views of Daniel and Amy McArthur, the owners of Ashers bakery in Northern Ireland which was sued because they refused to provide a cake supporting equal marriage are worth considering for a moment.

Their position is clear. As Bible-believing Christians they feel they simply have no alternative but to refuse to make a cake that contradicts their belief that same-sex marriage is wicked.

Clearly not all Christians hold to these views. Those who do hold them usually depend on a misreading of a couple of verses from the New Testament epistle to the Romans.

The trouble is, the epistle to the Romans has rather a lot to say about living under the civil law.

Why do the McArthurs take a fundamentalist line in relation to verses in Romans 1 that are perceived to be about same-sex couples yet seem to completely disregard Romans 13 where St Paul says:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.”

And how, in heaven’s name, can you refuse to bake a cake you don’t agree with in the name of a Saviour who said, “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well”?

If the McArthurs wanted to be Christian about that cake, they would have offered a bonus dollop of fresh cream on the side.

The gay cake row is not a clash of rights between the gays and the Christians – plenty of us fit into both categories in any case.

Gay people have a right not to be discriminated against in shops but crucially the same law gives the same right to Christians. If a Christian wants to go into a shop and order a cake then gay owners can’t discriminate against them on the grounds of religion.

The point of all this is not that gay people are privileged in the law; they are not. The point is that customers, all customers, are protected from being discriminated against due to their sexuality or their religion or indeed a number of other categories too. This isn’t about gay people having more privileges than religious people – it is about everyone having the same rights.

Neither is this about limiting free speech. A bizarre argument has been put forward by Peter Tatchell suggesting that this case means that bakers will be forced to write anything that anyone asks for on cakes no matter how offensive. He has raised the suggestion that printers could be forced to print cartoons of Mohamed or that Jewish printers could be forced to print the words of Holocaust deniers.

This is palpably nonsense and, unusually for Tatchell whose views are always worth considering, a complete misunderstanding of the legal point on which this case turns. The cake should have been made because refusing to do so discriminated against someone in one of the protected characteristics that the law quite rightly demands are not used as justification for prejudicial treatment. The courts have simply not determined that bakers have to print anything that people ask them to print on a cake.

Being a Holocaust denier is not a characteristic protected by the law. Being anti-Muslim is not a characteristic protected by the law.

Bakers will not be forced to make cakes with swastikas on them because being a Nazi is not a characteristic protected by law and isn’t going to become so any time soon.

The protected characteristics are easy enough to understand when you list them. You can’t discriminate on the grounds of someone’s age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, marriage and civil partnership status, and pregnancy or maternity.

Anything else, you can turn down just because it suits you.

You can’t refuse to bake a cake because your customers want it to say, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son Jesus” on the grounds that you happen to be a queer atheist. You can’t refuse to have a Christian couple staying in your bed and breakfast because you happen to be a pagan. That is right and proper. And you can’t refuse to produce a pro-gay cake nor refuse a gay couple a bed in a B&B. And that’s right too.

These rights are what we need for a good society to flourish.

People sometimes remember the kind of signs that used to appear outside premises before various anti-discrimination laws were passed.

“No Irish, no blacks, no dogs” is one famous example of appalling discrimination.

Those in Northern Ireland need to remember that these laws now protect us all.

No exceptions.

It’s not enough to #PrayForOrlando. People of faith must fight homophobia

This article appeared earlier today on the STV website.

As I stand outside St Mary’s Cathedral every Sunday in Glasgow I often witness a curious thing. As people walk down Great Western Road towards me, I notice that some of the gay couples who belong to the congregation reach out to one another as they get closer to the church and come in hand in hand.

I’m proud to be working in a religious institution where that is something that generally passes without any comment at all. However, whenever I see it, I reflect on the fact that there’s all too many institutions, religious and otherwise where a simple display of affection from a gay or lesbian couple will result in disapproval, abuse or even violence.

As I bless my congregation at the end of each service and send them out into the world, I know that the gay couples amongst them have less than a couple of miles of the streets of Scotland in which they might feel safe to show their affection for one another, and even then only at certain times and in certain company.

Religions often have a problem with gay people. But gay people have a problem every day with homophobia which infuses and poisons the world in which we live.

I simply don’t know any gay person who has never felt afraid to be themselves somewhere and I know all too many who are afraid to be themselves anywhere, even now and even after the passage of the hate-crimes and equal marriage legislation.

The attack in the Pulse Club in Orlando has rightly shocked the world. But condemnation of the violence comes more easily than identifying what it is that motivates such deadly hatred.

The question now is how do we prevent such a thing ever happening again?

To begin to find an answer to this question, we have first to acknowledge the everyday commonplace homophobia that exists in every society, even including Scotland, widely acknowledged as one of the best places to be gay in the world.

Religious institutions in particular have struggled to know how to respond to Orlando. The Church of England swiftly issued a “Prayer for Orlando” (recycled from the Paris and Lahore attacks) which mentioned neither Orlando nor LGBT people. The Archbishop of Canterbury tweeted his concern for all involved but especially “police and pastoral carers” and somehow managed to say nothing about those who were the target of the attack.

Gay people will not be safe on the streets until homophobia has been defeated in religious contexts.

This is something that even LGBT-positive institutions in society seem reluctant to tackle. The largest LGBT supportive organisations in Scotland sometimes seem to expend more energy on defending the right of religious people to hold anti-gay views than they do to tackling faith-based homophobia. Religion is not a special category. Faith based homophobia shouldn’t be off limits to those fighting for a more equal world. If anti-gay views can be tackled in healthcare, the police and even the armed forces, who have made tremendous progress, then it must be tackled in pew, pulpit and mosque as well.

Religious people wanting to pray today, comment today and make things better on this day when America’s worst multiple shooting has explicitly targeted those who are gay then they need to face up to some uncomfortable truths about where anti-gay views are most nourished. Those trying to represent the love of God in the world need to remember that in order to be in any way helpful today they need to be explicit about welcoming gay people and working for gay rights. It isn’t enough to weep with those who suffered violence in Orlando this weekend without a commitment to tackle the roots of that violence tomorrow.

Every gay person I know has been frightened to kiss in public. For the last few years I’ve been working to make it possible for them to kiss at their weddings in church. Recognising gay love at the altar is one of the most significant symbolic ways to tackle the underlying, prevailing homophobia of the everyday that every gay person knows instinctively.

We’re getting there, but painfully slowly.

The Orlando attack is a challenge to all who believe in the love of God. The idea that most religious people have is that God’s love is unconditional and open to everyone. The experience of countless people who are lesbian or gay is that the love of God that religious institutions have communicated is partial and very much conditional – not on offer for them unless they deny being the very person that God made.

And yet, even saying that, I have to bear witness to being a gay man who works right at the heart of the church who has found it a place of encouragement, welcome and healing. Gay friendly congregations exist and they are frequently being sought out by straight people who want their children to grow up in a religious environment where they might never ever hear anti-gay words spoken. Many religious institutions are struggling these days, but my hunch is that the future is bright for congregations which can somehow rise to the challenge of tackling anti-gay views and do so whilst specifically speaking out against all forms of identity oppression. After all, homophobia has some ugly sisters – racism, sexism and sectarianism who are not unknown in religious communities.

Preachers face a challenge this week. I know so many clergy who believe in gay equality who are frightened to speak about it publicly because they fear that their congregation just isn’t ready to hear it.

This week, it isn’t just their congregation that needs to hear it from the pulpit, it is the whole world.

Next Saturday night, “I will survive” will play in every gay club in the world as people shimmy their way into the great global dance for justice that even yet is proved a matter of life and death.

Next Sunday morning, gay people need more than just a few awkward prayers from religious leaders. We need commitments from religious people to turn faith institutions around and bring about change. That’s what repentance means and that’s what religion is at least partly about.

God’s beloved gay and lesbian children deserve nothing less.