At 10am last Wednesday morning, the UK Supreme Court handed down its decision on the appeal by Ashers bakery. Four years ago gay rights campaigner Gareth Lee ordered a cake from the Belfast bakery bearing a message supporting gay marriage. The order was declined and his money refunded. Mr Lee then sued Ashers for discriminating against him on the grounds of his sexual orientation (he is a homosexual). He won his case in the County Court and the bakery then appealed the decision. The appeal was denied by the Belfast High Court. Ashers then appealed to the Supreme Court, which leads us to last Wednesday. In a remarkable and unexpected decision, the Court unanimously reversed the decision of the two lower courts and upheld the appeal. They recognised that as far as the Christian owners of the bakery were concerned, the problem was with the message, not the person. It would not have made any difference if the customer had been a heterosexual rather than a homosexual—it was never about sexual orientation but about compelled speech. The Supreme Court has recognised this and stated that ‘nobody should be forced to have or express a political opinion in which he does not believe.’ This is a landmark ruling that will set a crucial precedent for no doubt difficult years to come. It has been welcomed by Christians and also by many gay rights campaigners such as Peter Tatchell who were able to see that the issue had nothing to do with discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
What lessons does this teach us as Christians?
- It shows us how to bear witness in the public square. Daniel and Amy McArthur, the owners of the bakery at the centre of the media maelstrom, and the representatives of the Christian Institute supporting them, have conducted themselves throughout the ordeal with grace and wisdom. They have never attacked those on the other side of the debate, in the way that so many of their opponents have done to them. In his statement after the appeal verdict, Daniel closed by reassuring Mr Lee that he was welcome in any of their stores. Again and again he has emphasised that there was never any problem with the customer—they had served him before and would serve him happily again. And every time they made a public statement, he and Amy spoke warmly and positively about their faith in God without any self-righteousness. By taking a stand in a difficult situation they have brought about a decision from the Supreme Court that will make a significant difference to a cutural debate.
When we have to make a stand on an issue that will attract persecution, mockery and hatred the temptation is to shrink back and spare ourselves the pain. But who knows what the Lord will do through that stand? We are called to be salt and light—to be distinctively Christian in the setting where God has placed us—and leave the outcome to the Lord. If we hold back because of fear, we’ll never know how the Lord might have helped us and used our witness.
- It reminds us to trust our sovereign, all-wise God. Someone made the point to me that when Ashers lost the first court case and the first appeal, many Christians were discouraged. What was God doing? Now we see he had a much much better plan! He intended the case to go to the highest court in the country and for Ashers to be vindicated on the biggest stage with the maximum amount of publicity and with no possibility of reversal.
That’s a lesson we can’t be reminded of too often. God’s plan is always best. He is infinite in his wisdom. He really does know how best to rule the universe. An outcome like this one that we can see encourages us to live by faith and keep trusting him in all the many times when we don’t understand or see the outcome.
- It teaches us to pray and not give up. The Lord really can direct the king’s heart in any way he pleases, just like a stream of water (Pr 21.1). Who would have thought that five Supreme Court justices would rule in favour of Christian business owners in a case perceived by the masses to be about gay rights? Yet they did. And they did it because the Lord moved their hearts to do so. And the prayers of God’s people are one of the means he uses to bring about his purposes. So let’s never never lose hope in praying for God to show mercy to our nation and to his people, no matter how unlikely the cause.