Some Quick Thoughts on the Ashers’ Judgement

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Now that a Judge has decided that Ashers’ bakery was guilty of breaking discrimination laws by refusing to bake a cake with a “Support Gay Marriage” logo, we can expect some passionate debate and “frank dialogue” about the nature of religious freedom in Northern Ireland. We can understand why passions might run high, but the last thing that we need at the moment is religious angst, apocalyptic warnings or knee-jerk reactions.

If a person opens their place of business to everyone, then they have invited everyone to do business. So it is wrong to arbitrarily refuse custom to members of the public. However, we do not think the state properly understands the nature of political freedom when it requires citizens (whether they are acting in a commercial capacity or not) to produce material which directly conflicts with their core beliefs and values. And it is particularly unjust, and frankly incredible, to expect anyone to produce material which conflicts with their conscience when that material can easily be purchased elsewhere.

In other words, the state is not doing a very good job of balancing rights at the moment. So attention will inevitably return to Paul Givan’s proposal that Northern Ireland’s equality legislation be amended to include a “conscience clause”. But we do not think that it is good or wise to pass legislation which will only exempt some businesses from the parts of equality legislation which pertains to sexual orientation. This runs the danger of pitting two narrowly defined interest groups against one another in a zero-sum political battle. And we must be very clear – legislation which could be used to refuse goods or services to anyone on the basis of their sexual orientationwould undermine the very freedoms we value.

But crucially, the scope of Mr. Givan’s proposed conscience clause is much too narrow to appropriately value the role of conscience in the public square. Freedom of conscience is important enough to merit a much broader and much more serious conversation. We need to create the freedom necessary to manifest one’s religious or philosophical beliefs in a multi-cultural society. Indeed, the case for full freedom of conscience – what we will call “soul freedom”- seems unanswerable.

Religion normally prescribes how believers should act in secular affairs; few religions can be practised by consenting adults in private.  So, in a pluralistic society, if a person is religious then that person might have different ethical beliefs and social practices than their neighbours. If we cannot make space for those beliefs and practices, then we have restricted their religious freedom. We do not solve the problems of religious pluralism by telling religious people to keep all of their inconvenient beliefs locked away; no community can thrive in the closet. When we privatize religious belief we tell it that it does not belong in a civilised, modern society. Effectively, we discriminate against it: it is that simple and that wrong.

Of course, different traditions and world-views lead to different morals, customs and practices; naturally this can lead to public disagreement. However, so long as there are means for peacefully and creatively defusing the inevitable tension, we believe such disagreements can be good for society. Different world-views suggest radically different answers to practical problems; being confronted by different philosophies should lead policy makers to reconsider their own prejudices and biases. At the very least, it should prompt political leaders to justify their assumptions and presuppositions to a critical audience.

Democracies also depend upon the scrutiny of their citizens: therefore, they must respect the intrinsic worth of each person’s judgement. An open society will want to make room for a principled pluralism – and, therefore, freedom of conscience – to maximise the number of citizens who believe that they have a stake in society.  And it is always a terrible thing to coerce someone to do what she believes to be wrong. So we need some means of protecting what Os Guiness calls “soul freedom”:

…Roger Williams’s magnificent term for religious freedom. It stands over against those who confuse religious freedom with mere toleration, or shrink it to mean only the freedom to worship. It challenges those who view it simply as “freedom for the religious,” or think that when religion is dismissed, religious freedom can be ignored…[it] is “the right to adopt, hold, freely exercise, share, or change one’s beliefs subject solely to the dictates of conscience and independent of all outside, especially governmental control.” Seen this way, freedom of religion and belief (which covers secularist worldviews too) is essential because it involves nothing less than our freedom to be human.

To preserve soul-freedom, a citizen should only be made exempt from legislation when that legislation dictates that he or she must act against a central aspect of their faith or world-view. To be exempted, a claimant would need to demonstrate that legislation substantially burdens a sincerely held belief; they would also need to show that this belief plays an important role in guiding their community or tradition. Furthermore, a government should be able to compel citizens to go against their consciences when the government can demonstrate that it has a clear, compelling interest in doing so. Every government has a clear and compelling interest in upholding its criminal code, for example, or to collect taxes.

This does not open the door to anarchy. The law could not tolerate religious behaviour which undermined religious freedom: that is, it need not tolerate behaviour which is wilfully absurd or which prevents individuals from pursuing the truth without fear of harassment; furthermore, the government would have a compelling interest to intervene if any subsection of society faced widespread discrimination. But there is no compelling state interest in forcing religious citizens to provide goods and services which promote or condone beliefs they strongly disagree with; especially when asking a customer to seek the goods or services elsewhere does not create a substantial burden for the customer.

We’ve simply outlined the sort of society we would like to live in: one governed by a principled pluralism and not by a theocratic tyranny or secularist bureaucracy. We merely wish that some room must be made for deep religious and philosophical disagreement in a civil society. We’re not concerned with party politics or electioneering at Saints and Sceptics (nor are we interested in forming a “moral majority”).

But a reasonable person can doubt that secularization is progressive, universal and inevitable. Humans naturally seek meaning and transcendence, community and belonging. For that reason, religion will always be part of human experience. The arguments for the rationality Christian faith are (at least) as good as those against it. Modernity was meant to lead to the death of religion; it has certainly led to the growth of the “non-religious”. However, across the globe, orthodox religion is thriving; even in the academy, religious scholars remain as accomplished as their secular peers. Secularization is stumbling; it would be a shame if secularism became more strident and unforgiving in response.

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