Lee v. Ashers Baking Company, A Victory Against Compelled Speech

Asher Bakery Belfast gay marriage cake compelled speech

Today saw a victory against compelled speech and authoritarian government, but fewer and fewer voices on the Left are in the mood to celebrate

Today the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom handed down a decision in Lee v Ashers Baking Company Ltd, the UK’s equivalent of the Masterpiece Cakeshop case in the United States (which the UK court actually cited in its ruling).

Both cases came about when plaintiffs claimed discrimination based on sexual orientation after trying to place an order for wedding cakes bearing messages supportive of gay marriage at bakeries owned and operated by traditional conservative Christians, who then refused the orders on the grounds that to produce the cakes bearing the specific messages would violate their deeply held religious beliefs.

From the BBC:

The UK’s highest court ruled that Ashers bakery’s refusal to make a cake with a slogan supporting same-sex marriage was not discriminatory.

The five justices on the Supreme Court were unanimous in their judgement.

[…] The customer, gay rights activist Gareth Lee, sued the company for discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and political beliefs.

But the bakery has always insisted its objection was to the message on the cake, not the customer.

I have long taken the view put forward many years ago by Andrew Sullivan, that gay marriage should be accepted on the grounds that broadening an institution which promotes stability, permanence, mutual responsibility and (consequently) social capital can only be a good thing, especially at a time when social atomization and selfish, destructive cultural hedonism are doing so much to weaken vital bonds at the community and national level.

I would never advocate (nor tolerate) religious institutions being forced to conduct gay marriage ceremonies against their will, but rolling out the basic template of marriage and making it more widely accessible – especially to one of the only demographics which currently shows any enthusiasm for the institution! – seems perfectly sensible to me.

But even more abhorrent than the idea that the government might compel religious organizations to conduct ceremonies which violated their codes and moral systems is the  prospect of government compelling the speech of ordinary people, making anybody who wishes to participate in the public square affirm certain social dogmas on pain of civil or criminal liability. We have already seen Canada start to go down this road with Canadian Bill C-16, a statutory amendment which adds gender identity and gender expression to classes of individuals protected under Canadian human rights law, and moves perilously close to criminalizing the “misgendering” of people. Thus it is not inconceivable that someone could be held criminally liable in Canada were they to refuse to conform their speech to proclaim that trans women are women and trans men are men.

Compelled speech is the very last thing a healthy liberal democracy should be striving to enact. Thus it is great to see at least one human rights and civil liberties group – one which has not yet fully prostrated itself before the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics – celebrate the Ashers Baking Company decision.

From the Peter Tatchell Foundation:

“This verdict is a victory for freedom of expression. As well as meaning that Ashers cannot be legally forced to aid the promotion of same-sex marriage, it also means that gay bakers cannot be compelled by law to decorate cakes with anti-gay marriage slogans,” said human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation.

“Businesses can now lawfully refuse a customer’s request to emblazon a political message if they have a conscientious objection to it. This includes the right to refuse messages that are sexist, xenophobic or anti-gay, which is a good thing.

“Although I profoundly disagree with Ashers opposition to marriage equality, in a free society neither they nor anyone else should be forced to facilitate a political idea that they oppose.

“The ruling does not permit anyone to discriminate against LGBT people. Such discrimination rightly remains unlawful.

“Ashers did not discriminate against the customer, Gareth Lee, because he was gay. They objected to the message he wanted on the cake: Support gay marriage.’

It is sad that statements like this now have to be cheered and encouraged rather than taken for granted by civil liberties defenders and free speech advocates, but such are the authoritarian times in which we live – trapped in a pincer movement between what Maajid Nawaz calls the “Control Left” on one side, and reactionary, protectionist nationalists on the other.

Proving that he is one of the few prominent voices on the British Left who remains capable of thinking through the consequences of implementing illiberal leftist identity politics dogma heedless of the ramifications, Tatchell continues:

If the original judgement against Ashers had been upheld it would have meant that a Muslim printer could be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed and a Jewish printer could be forced to publish a book that propagates Holocaust denial. It could have also encouraged far right extremists to demand that bakers and other service providers facilitate the promotion of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim opinions.

Of course it wouldn’t be; we know that the administrators of this illiberal code – including establishment figures as powerful as the former head of the Crown Prosecution Service – would implement any such statutes or case law highly selectively, punishing only the disfavored “white, Christian male” group while refraining from holding other groups to the same draconian standard. But Tatchell is quite right that the argument for compelled speech, taken not even so far as to its logical conclusion but merely a few steps down the road, would swiftly end up censoring and controlling us all.

The real concern is that old-school campaigners like Peter Tatchell are a dying breed. In fact, they are being hunted to extinction by a new generation of social justice warrior activists whose petty accomplishments are nothing compared to someone like Tatchell (who, like him or not, has labored for years and put his body in harms way more than once in advance of his ideals) but who deludedly think they morally outrank him because they are willing to go further in their rhetorical, legal and constitutional attacks on dissenters.

This is a time when conservatives – indeed, anyone not of an ultra-progressive persuasion – need to pick their battles very carefully. Social conservatives may disagree vehemently with the social views of someone like Peter Tatchell, but in this authoritarian age it is not he who seeks to impose his views on others. Indeed, given the opportunity, some social conservatives would be more likely to impose their own views on progressive dissenters than Tatchell would do to them – which should give serious pause for reflection.

At this time the threat to fundamental rights and civil liberties, when the identity politics Left is hell-bent on compelling the speech of private citizens, forcing them to say words or endorse ideas in which they do not believe, old political divisions must be put aside in order to withstand the creeping incursions of authoritarianism into society. There will be time enough to relitigate social issues once we have jointly confronted and dispensed with the band of zealots who would actually put us in prison for thinking the wrong things.

In these fractious times, the sane(r) Left urgently needs shoring up. Because if things continue on their current trajectory, Peter Tatchell’s ideological opponents on the right will miss him when he is gone.

 

Ashers Bakery Belfast

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Vladimir Putin, Gay Marriage’s Best Salesman?

Temperatures in the netherworld dipped below zero yesterday, and the outlook is forecast to remain glacial for the indefinite future. It’s official – hell has frozen over. And you don’t need a thermometer to bear witness to this fact – simply head over to Cristina Odone’s blog at The Telegraph and see for yourself.

Odone has publicly re-examined and changed her stance on gay marriage. Throwing her hands in the air in apparent acknowledgement of the inevitable, Odone – somewhat resentfully – now supports extending the institution of marriage to homosexual couples.

If, like me, you held the chances of such a thing ever happening to be so vanishingly small that its occurrence would represent a bellwether event in the movement for equality and civil rights, then this is more than just cause for celebration. We should celebrate. There must always be pause for reflection and thanksgiving when someone who once sat on the other side of the fence comes out in support of equal marriage, and bringing a hitherto-excluded group of people into the fold of marriage.

But after the celebration, it is also right to wonder what makes someone who is seemingly implacably opposed to an idea suddenly change their mind. Proponents of gay marriage will want to know this so that they can focus their arguments and target their resources where they will do the most good. And it is here, unfortunately, that one of the most high-profile recent converts to the cause of marriage equality will do them absolutely no good at all.

Because Cristina Odone was convinced not by rational argument or through personal experience, but by the President of Russia.

Vladimir Putin made Cristina Odone support gay marriage.

All the reasoned argument in the world could not sway Cristina Odone. But apparently this man has what it takes.
All the reasoned argument in the world could not sway Cristina Odone. But apparently this man had what it takes.

 

And this dramatic volte-face was carried out by a woman whose own vast persecution complex over gay marriage only recently led her to this spectacular “feed me to the lions” meltdown:

[David Cameron] may get away with bullying a great many – perhaps the majority – into accepting his proposals. But in doing so Cameron will create a less liberal and tolerant society. Those who have held fast to their principles, will have to accept what the majority wants. But will the majority respect what the minority believes in? Not in Cameron’s Britain, they won’t. The moment the vicar or priest refuses to celebrate a gay marriage in their church, the aggrieved couple will see them in court — in Strasbourg. Here, at the European Court of Human Rights, Christians will once again be thrown to the lions as their opponents will strive to set a precedent: equal rights means equal access to religious marriage ceremony. Anyone who stands in a gay couple’s way will be persecuted by the law (and those strident gay rights lobbyists who tolerate only those who see everything their way.)

But that was Cristina Odone in 2012. The Odone of 2014 has this to say, in her most recent column for the Telegraph:

I have written before about my fear that legalising gay marriage would affect the special status of marriage as a sacred institution. I have argued that once gay people could demand to be married, believers who refused to open their churches or even church halls to the ceremony would be punished. But Putin’s homophobic measures have changed my mind. If I oppose gay marriage I may be seen as condoning his anti-gay campaign. I couldn’t live with that.

She rightly goes on to rake Vladimir Putin over the coals for his opportunistic and divisive decision to shore up his political position by focusing attention on gay people as the new “enemy within”:

Putin will continue to pursue this hateful campaign because it strikes a nasty populist chord. Sadly it would seem that his supporters are not just in Russia but abroad, too: Putin ranks as number three most admired world figure, ahead of Pope Francis. Why? because Putin has manoeuvred himself to be the crusader against “the other” – in the shape of immigrants, alternative lifestyles, and above all gays. He has driven a fault line through 21st-century culture. On one side, there are the Russian leader and his supporters, who believe gays are fair game for abuse. On the other side are gays – vilified and beaten –  and those who oppose their persecution. Putin is forcing us all to choose between him and his victims. I cannot stand with Putin.

Good. But think for a moment about the logic (or startling lack thereof) behind this statement. Cristina Odone apparently inhabits a world where deeply held personal convictions are no longer something to be defended through reasoned, intellectual debate and changed only in the face of persuasive evidence to the contrary. In this world, beliefs and opinions are instead chopped and changed as they wax and wane in popularity or inevitability, and can be picked up or discarded according to the reputation or behaviour of other people who hold them.

Always believed in low taxes, but just found out that a prominent individual got caught engaging in tax evasion? No problem, simply join the Labour Party and clamour for a mansion tax, because believing in low taxation is no longer fashionable. More horrific revelations in the media about the coverup of child abuse in your local Catholic diocese? Why not convert to Buddhism for a nice refreshing change, surely everyone loves a Buddhist?

The ease with which one can pick apart Odone’s reasoning does not mean that we should not be pleased at the end result. We can be delighted with the destination if still somewhat puzzled by the winding, circuitous route taken on the journey to reach it. But as someone who has long opposed gay marriage and full equality for gay people in Britain, I think Cristina Odone owes us a peek at the Google (or perhaps more likely Apple) Map routing that led her to this strange new place.

To publicly change a staunchly-held position on a major issue such as gay marriage without providing a line-by-line or argument-by-argument account of the evolution in her thinking is intellectually lazy, and significantly detracts from the impact of Odone’s announcement. That is bad for her personal credentials as a thinker and a writer, but it also denies equal marriage supporters the propaganda victory that could then take their argument further.

Until recently, Cristina Odone was thundering that the sanctioning gay marriage represented the “tyranny of the majority” and the end of religious liberty for anyone of faith. And yet she now supports gay marriage. So either her fears of tyranny and oppression were unfounded – in which case admitting as much would be the only intellectually rigorous and honest thing to do – or she considers aiding and abetting the onset of tyranny to be a small price to pay in exchange for preserving her reputation as a national newspaper columnist who does not want to be associated with a homophobic foreign regime.

Which is it?

The uneasy thought remains that perhaps Odone’s column was not intended seriously, and is simply the journalistic equivalent of throwing her toys out of the pram at being discredited by association with the likes of Vladimir Putin. We should certainly pay careful attention to her pronouncements on gay marriage once the Sochi Winter Olympics are over and the attention fades on Russia’s regressive attitude toward homosexuality.

Changing your mind on dodgy or unexplained pretexts once is cause for notice and concern. But if it were to happen twice on the same issue – if Odone should decide to backtrack on her words once Vladimir Putin is no longer commanding world attention and making her look bad – it would pose a very serious question as to why anyone should continue paying attention to anything she writes or says at all.

Let’s hope that Cristina Odone’s defection is the real thing, and not just a tactical ruse.

Farewell, DOMA

Equal treatment under the law

The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) has been struck down by the United States Supreme Court. Same-sex marriages conferred by the individual states can no longer be denied or not recognised by the federal government.

From the majority opinion, authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy:

The differentiation [between heterosexual and homosexual couples] demeans the [homosexual] couple, whose moral and sexual choices the Constitution protects, see Lawrence, 539 U. S. 558, and whose relationship the State has sought to dignify. And it humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples. The law in question makes it even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives.

No longer will your legal married status fade and strengthen like intermittent cellphone service when you travel from one state to another.

Take the time to hug a Fox News viewer today. After the brief thrill experienced holing the Voting Rights Act beneath the waterline yesterday, today they have had to suffer the end of federal discrimination against same-sex married couples, and the onward march of immigration reform. It’s a tough day to be an intolerant, theocratical reactionary.

And, for all of its flaws and slowly turning wheel of justice, what a great thing is the United States Constitution, and a Supreme Court willing to overturn populist, discriminatory laws in favour of the universal right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The complete ruling in the case of United States v. Windsor can be read here.

SEMI PARTISAN SUMMARY

CULTURE

Slate magazine thinks that fastidious chefs are doing it wrong and that everyone needs to relax when it comes to worrying about the perfect oven temperature to cook their masterpieces – because the perfect oven temperature is a myth. Apparently some people pay people to “calibrate” their ovens every year, a waste of money given the fact that ovens heat above the set temperature and allow it to cool below before reheating, and the fact that different parts of the oven will maintain different temperatures to the area with the thermostat. This is a total vindication of my “make it up as you go along, don’t measure things and see what happens” philosophy of cooking.

Neil Armstrong is recovering well from heart surgery according to a report from NPR. Armstrong, the first man on the moon, now aged 82, recently had heart bypass surgery according to his wife. Neil Armstrong is an outspoken opponent of recent cutbacks to the NASA budget, recently telling Congress: “For a country that has invested so much for so long to achieve a leadership position in space exploration and exploitation, this condition is viewed by many as lamentably embarrassing and unacceptable”.

PoliticalOmnivore writes a smart review of David Frum’s first novel, “Patriots”, which I am currently also reading. Frum, a leading American and Canadian conservative intellectual, and former Bush administration official, has written an excellent novel which provides an insider’s glimpse into the seedy underside of Washington D.C., and the way that recent political trends (the Tea Party etc.) are influencing the behaviour of the thousands of political operatives working in D.C., serving the powers that be. I will be publishing my own review of “Patriots” on this blog in the coming days.

Another piece from Slate, scolding us for admiring the physiques of the female Olympic beach volleyball competitors, rather than their athletic skills. Justin Peters, the author, makes a fair point, though I think he goes a little too far in referring to Boris Johnson as an “asshole couch dweller”.

The astronauts currently aboard the International Space Station have a unique perspective on the London 2012 Olympic Games, writes astronaut Joe Acaba on his NASA blog. He writes: “I think watching the Olympics reminds us that we share one planet and that we can respect one another no matter what our differences, yet at the same time we can be proud of who we are and what we represent”.

A moving memorial from The Economist to recent failed missions to Mars, against the background of the recent success of NASA’s Curiosity rover in landing successfully on the surface of the red planet.

 

BRITISH POLITICS

The same left-wing blogs who so viscerally oppose the idea of unpaid internships, or the government’s welfare-to-work plans for unpaid work experience in exchange for benefits, are apparently posting recruitment advertisements for people to work as interns in a “voluntary” capacity. Blogger Guido Fawkes calls them out for their blatant hypocrisy.

<< Nothing else worthwhile to report on British politics. The Olympics eclipses everything… >>

 

AMERICAN POLITICS

A rare voice of sense in today’s Republican party, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md) has spoken out against the hysteria and apocalyptic language being used by some of his GOP colleagues as the budget “sequester” – the compulsory draconian spending cuts designed to kick into effect if the two parties could not agree a comprehensive spending deal – comes closer to becoming a reality. Appealing to the better nature of lawmakers, Bartlett says: “We need to stop with all the superlatives about the thing and be rational about it and involve the American people on it. It’s their country. It’s their kids that will have to fight the next war. They have a right to be involved, don’t they?” Hear, hear.

The Economist ponders the difference between “buying a little social justice with your coffee and buying a little Christian traditionalism with your chicken”. Their conclusion: “… the best arena for moral disagreement is not the marketplace, but our intellectual and democratic institutions. We hash out our disagreements, as best we can, in public deliberation. The outcome of this deliberation becomes input to official policymaking, which in turn determines the rules of the game for business.”

Tim Stanley, writing in The Telegraph, cries a river for Mitt Romney over the recent harsh campaign ads that the Obama campaign has unleashed upon the Republican nominee-in-waiting. Pulling the partisan blinkers firmly into position over his eyes, he conveniently skips any mention of Republican “death panel” talk, or GOP intransigence on striking a bipartisan deal on the budget and deficit reduction. According to Dr. Stanley, “… we can also detect a strategy for winning that runs counter to liberal faith in his powerful personality. In short: hope and change are out; divide to win is in.”

Politico The Prude

Politico reports that John Stewart has been criticising the Democratic legislators and mayors who have been bullying and threatening Chick-fil-A over the position on gay marriage taken by that company’s CEO, mocking them on The Daily Show:

Comedian Jon Stewart ripped Mayors Rahm Emanuel and Tom Menino on Thursday night for pledging to block Chick-fil-A from opening new restaurants in their cities, siding with those on the right who say such a move would be unconstitutional.

“Pretty sure you can’t outlaw a company with perfectly legal business practices because you find their CEO’s views repellant. Not sure which amendment covers that, but it’s probably in the top one,” Stewart said. “I think maybe the mayors hadn’t thought this thing through.”

Very true. I have already written about the hypocrisy and illiberalism of those people who, like Rahm Emanuel and Tom Menino, want to punish individuals or groups not for their actions but their beliefs.

Unfortunately, we then get this:

Stewart mocked the chicken chain’s supporters, too, using sexual innuendo in a joke about “the million mouth march.”

“And what better way to stand up and say, ‘I oppose gay people’s rights to get married,’ than to head down to a Chick-fil-A, grab a hold of two buttery buns, split down and gobble down some of that hot, greasy…” Stewart said before saying a certain synonym for chicken that also refers to the male anatomy.

I think the word they are grasping for is “cock”. That’s C-O-C-K.

Could you find a more tortured way of not to say “cock” than to write “a certain synonym for chicken that also refers to the male anatomy”?

And “the male anatomy”? Is even the word “penis” out of bounds these days?

It irritates me when news organisations refuse to use certain words when they are central to the story or quote under discussion. Sometimes this is due to tortured political correctness or oversensitivity – if there is a story about racism, for example, we will hear lots about the offender uttering “the N-word”, for example. Sometimes it is due to squeamishness or prudishness, such as talking about someone who lets “the F-word” slip. And sometimes it is due to willful ignorance, such as when the New York Times refers to waterboarding as “torture” when it is carried out by a foreign country, but “enhanced interrogation” when committed by the United States.

In this case, it doesn’t really matter. The article is a light-hearted piece about a parody news show. At other times and with other stories it does matter though, and failing to report a quote accurately, or use the correct term, can have damaging or insidious consequences.

The only time that offensive words have the power to harm is when they are put on a pedestal and only referred to in roundabout, opaque ways. News organisations and journalists make themselves look silly when they falsely ascribe such power to a harmless arrangement of letters.