Cooking up a religious storm

November 24, 2016 23:28

Asher was the eighth son of Jacob and the progenitor of one of the 12 tribes of Israel. Some 22 years ago Colin McArthur and his wife, Karen, in setting up a bakery in Newtownabbey, outside Belfast, decided to name it after this biblical personage. As heads of a devout Presbyterian family they knew their Bible, and it seemed to them fitting that the shop should carry Asher's name, because in the sedra "Vayyechi" of Bereshit [49: 20] we read that Asher's father, Jacob, blessed him in the following terms: "Asher's food will be rich; he will provide delicacies fit for a king."

Last week Ashers Baking Company was fined £500, plus costs, after district judge Isobel Brownlie ruled it had discriminated against Gareth Lee, a gay rights activist who had placed an order for a cake to be presented at a municipal celebration of what was termed an "International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia". As practising Christians, the Ashers objected to baking a cake which carried the slogan "Support Gay Marriage".

No matter how learned in the law are those lawyers who have tried to insist that Brownlie's ruling had nothing to do with religious discrimination against the Asher family, because the judge had determined that the company was merely a business (and could not, therefore, claim the protection the law affords to religious institutions), the verdict in this case has all the hallmarks of religious persecution. That is why British Jews need to pay attention to what has happened.

"Gay marriage" is illegal in Northern Ireland, but was legalised in England and Wales, on the personal initiative of the Prime Minister, in 2013. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act was the culmination of a long campaign by homosexuals to achieve a parity of esteem - at least in legal terms - with heterosexuals; it necessarily involved an assault on religious beliefs and religious rights. Amongst the concessions with which gay rights activists had to live in order to get the legislation onto the statute book were a raft of clauses protecting religious organisations and individual ministers of religion if they declined to perform same-sex "weddings" or to permit their premises to be used for this purpose. But the legislation does not protect the wider freedom of religious conscience. And - clearly - the gay lobby has decided to use any opportunity to chip away at this freedom and thus advance its own agenda.

Sooner or later this will involve British Jewry. Ashers Bakery, though Christian-owned, was not under any formal religious supervision. But kosher bakeries in the UK are. Suppose Mr Lee had approached any one of these outlets and demanded the baking of a cake iced with a slogan advocating "gay marriage". I cannot imagine any reputable kashrut authority remaining silent, because fulfilling such an order, and being paid to do so, would amount to calling for the abrogation of a halachic norm.

Over the past year I have watched in horror as practising Christians in the UK have been persecuted (there is no other word for it) because of their principled opposition to "gay marriage". I cite the case, for example, of Red Cross volunteer Bryan Barkley, who was thrown out of the organisation because, in a private capacity, he had expressed his religious conviction on this topic. Sooner or later British Jews will be targeted. I don't need to be reminded of the Talmudic maxim that "the law of the land is the law". I don't need to be told that kosher bakeries have for years offered "yuletide logs" in the December festive season. "Yuletide" is pagan in origin, but no kosher outlet that I know of has ever sold cakes or pastries demanding "support Christian festivals". Or (for that matter) hot-cross buns proclaiming "Support Jesus the Messiah".

I would take the same view if a devout Moslem printer refused to fulfil an order for leaflets depicting images of Mohammed. Or if a homosexual baker refused, on grounds of conscience, to bake a cake with the slogan "Reject Gay Marriage". In a liberal democracy the right to live one's life in accordance with deeply held, non-violent beliefs needs to be protected - whether or not you or I happen to agree with them.

November 24, 2016 23:28

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