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The Great Cake Debate: The Importance of Conscience

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Equality Law and Christianity

In recent months, there has been a proliferation of new legal cases where Christian business owners are being sued for refusing to provide services based on conscience grounds. These cases often relate to same-sex weddings or the promotion of messages supporting marriage redefinition. Some of these cases border on the ridiculous, such as the Colorado baker asked to make a cake for Satan’s birthday

Typically, opponents of conscience rights oversimplify the issue by making two arguments. The first is that anyone going into business should be prohibited from refusing to provide a service to a prospective customer for moral or other grounds. And second, that such a refusal is akin to racism or a similar heinous act of prejudice.


Fallacy 1: Service Providers Cannot Refuse to Provide a Service

To start with the first argument. It is important to remember that just because someone decides to run a business or provide services that they do not, as a result, give up their civil, social, or human rights. While a customer does have a legal right not to be discriminated against, so too does a service provider enjoy a legal right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.

To put this into perspective, even the most secular among us knows the feeling of guilt when we act contrary to what we know in our hearts to be right. Even more so, in our lifetime there is the inevitability that each of us commit a grave violation of our conscience by doing something we know to be particularly wrong. And in such cases, that regret can be life-altering. Knowing that human experience and the awful feeling of guilt that comes with it, we can appreciate the importance of acting in line with our conscience. This is precisely why the law makes allowances for acts of conscience.

Each of us holds certain internal feelings at the core of who we are. These feelings may be, for example, love of country or love of one’s children. For the Christian service providers of the world, a love of Jesus Christ and an adherence to their belief in Christian sexual morality, hold tremendous and life-changing meaning. For this very reason, in our gut, we should know why it is wrong for the state to compel any Christian service provider to offend their conscience on such a matter of intimate concern.

In each and every one of the cases I am aware of, the service provider did not refuse the service being asked of them because of the sexual orientation of the client (in fact, many of them had provided services to them in the past in matters which did not promote an ideological message that offended the service provider’s religious beliefs). It was therefore participation, which means complicity with, the message behind the service that was being objected to and not the sexual orientation of the clients, that led to the refusal of service.


Fallacy 2: Refusing a Service on Conscience Grounds is Akin to Racism

This leads to the second argument, that refusing services to someone in relation to promoting same-sex weddings or homosexual behaviour in general is akin to racism or a moral wrong of the same ilk. I find this argument to be a red herring. Let’s take two scenarios. The first is that of a person of colour being refused services by a printer. Our instinct is to impute a motivation of racism onto the service provider.

However, let’s take the same scenario with the same person of colour and the same printer but add that the printer is Jewish and the client is wanting him to publish virulently antisemitic literature. My guess is that very few people would want the state to compel that printer to publish the offending material; nor would we impute racism as his motivation for denying services.

Now, even if that printer had never personally suffered an antisemitic act in his life, he nonetheless would likely have an abhorrence to antisemitism bound up in his very existence. In a similar vein, so too does the Christian service provider hold deeply held feelings and beliefs about being forced to provide certain services that have nothing to do with the sexual orientation of the client, but have everything to do with honouring his God.



While certain campaign groups and ideologues wish to portray the Christian business provider as small-minded and hateful - and historically we know that such propaganda, particularly in the 20th century, has been used with much success in marginalising minorities for the purposes of taking away their rights - ultimately such false argumentation is merely trying to manipulate the wider population by appealing to our inner sense of justice while at the same time blinding us to the real facts at play. Before we pass judgment or impute motive into any person’s reasons for refusing a service, it would be wise to look into ourselves and think how we would feel if the state was asking us to act against what we believed to be true in our heart of hearts.



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