The case against Ashers Baking Company Limited and its directors for refusing to design and ice a cake showing support for same-sex marriage has highlighted how important it is to protect freedom of religion for Bible-believing Christians who wish to conduct their business without being compelled to carry out any act in violation of their religious beliefs.
The European Convention on Human Rights states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” (Article 9).
It must be noted that this right is absolute, in other words it does not suffer any form of interference by public authorities or other persons within society. A Bible-believing Christian should therefore be free at all times to uphold his religious beliefs and not be coerced to act against them.
The European Court of Human Rights stated :
“As enshrined in Article 9 … freedom of thought, conscience and religion is one of the foundations of a ‘democratic society’ within the meaning of the Convention. It is, in its religious dimension, one of the most vital elements that go to make up the identity of believers and their conception of life … The pluralism indissociable from a democratic society, which has been dearly won over the centuries, depends on it.” (Kokkinakis v Greece, 1993).
The Court has recognised that Christian denominations can be defined as religions or beliefs, which fall within the remit of the protection afforded by Article 9. The religious principles of Biblical Christianity are foundational to the conduct of all aspects of the life of those in charge of the Ashers Bakery Company, including the way they direct and carry out their business. They were being requested to act in a way that is contrary to their strongly held religious beliefs and in doing so to violate their conscience, which would be in breach of their absolute right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, protected under the Convention.
There is no doubt that public opinion in support of homosexual marriage does not constitute a religion or a belief protected by Article 9, but falls under the right to freedom of expression protected by Article 10, which is a qualified right. The plaintiff is seeking to obtain the possibility to express a political opinion in favour of same sex marriage by way of the slogan on the cake. Under the Convention, the plaintiff’s qualified right to freedom of expression is overriden by the necessity to protect Ashers’ directors’ absolute right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. If that right is to have any tangible meaning, it must be ensured that Ashers’ directors are not compelled to act against their thought, conscience and religion. The plaintiff’s request should therefore be dismissed and the right of the directors of Ashers Bakery Company Limited not to act against their conscience upheld.
The Chief of the Northern Ireland Equality Commission, Mr Michael Wardlow stated: “If you read the Bible, all 66 books, from beginning to end, it seems to be one of the pieces of the architecture that holds it together is that God created man and woman in his image as equal. For people of faith to say equality is not at the core of what they do, then they are not reading the same Bible as me” (Belfast Telegraph, 21 March 2015, page 14). What Mr Wardlow appears to have failed to understand is that man and woman are equal in dignity, fallen-ness and responsibility. Man and woman are answerable to God for their actions since there are things permitted and things forbidden. When the Bible talks about equality it never says that all actions and behaviours are equal – some are right and some are wrong. People who claim to be LGBT are of equal worth but the lifestyle they choose is not of equal worth and in accordance with what the Bible states, it is clearly wrong. Nowhere in the Bible is same-sex marriage supported or condoned. It is quite the reverse, since both the Old Testament and the New Testatment reinforce Biblical marriage as between one man and one woman. The Lord Jesus Christ unquestionably stood by this (Matthew 19 v. 4-6). In line with the Bible, the European Convention on Human Rights declares :
“Men and women of marriageable age have the right to marry and to found a family” (Article 12).
In maintaining that marriage is only between a man and a woman, Ashers’ directors are therefore correct according to the Bible and the European Convention on Human Rights.
One of the primary duties of the State concerning the freedom of thought, conscience and religion is to protect and guarantee pluralism in a democratic society. Those for whom Bible-based beliefs are the foundation stone of their lives, determining their conduct and the way they carry out their lawful business, must be protected by the State. The respect for pluralism is the necessary condition for preserving cohesion, mutual respect and peace within the community as well as promoting the furtherance of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the context of a democratic society. The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion of Christians in business in Northern Ireland must be upheld and remain unhindered from attempts to coerce them into acting against their conscience.
We hope that the courts in Northern Ireland will uphold the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion of the directors of Ashers Baking Company Limited and relieve them from the unjustified legal action brought against them.