"Christian" assemblies and cake

This week has seen a furore over a couple of, dare I say, non-issues.

In the first, the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev’d John Prtichard – Church of England head of education – has opined on whether assemblies “of a broadly Christian nature” should continue in schools. He has concluded they should not. Unsurprisingly, the British Humanist Association (BHA), whose sole raison d’etre is to see the removal of all expressions of faith from public life, applaud the comments. The Daily Telegraph, amongst others, were less than impressed.

Let’s not pretend that the Bishop of Oxford and the BHA are singing off the same hymn sheet. The BHA want to see any hint of faith removed from schools and other public arenas altogether. The Bishop of Oxford is less keen on that and more interested in “liberating” schools and offering a time for “spirituality” of differing forms.

Now, I can’t say I agree with the reasoning of either the Bishop of Oxford or the BHA. However, I do agree that assemblies “of a broadly Christian nature” should no longer be enforced in schools. I take this view for three main reasons:

Firstly, removing the compulsion for “Christian” assemblies does not mean that we can no longer have assemblies “of a broadly Christian nature”. All this would do is remove the compulsion for it to be “broadly Christian”. Second, the makeup of schools in the UK is not “broadly Christian”. In some areas, schools are majority muslim and in other areas there is a clear mix of beliefs. Even in majority white British schools, to say most are from “broadly Christian” backgrounds is probably false. Finally, and most significantly, assemblies “of a broadly Christian nature” – certainly stretching back as far as when I was at school (and I suspect further) – means, in practice, asinine rubbish that barely accords with any conceived notion of Christianity. I would far rather we had assemblies that didn’t even purport to be Christian – whether they also amount to asinine nonsense or otherwise – than we keep up a pretence of “Christian” assemblies that are no such thing.

In the second cause of consternation, a Northern Irish bakery is being taken to court over their refusal to bake a cake containing a slogan in favour of gay marriage, which is still unlawful in the province. The cake was also asked to contain a logo for the campaign group QueerSpace and photograph of Sesame Street characters Bert & Ernie hugging. The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland are seeking to argue the bakery has discriminated against Gareth Lee, the volunteer LGBT activist who ordered the cake, on grounds that refusal breaches equality legislation outlawing discrimination in the provision of goods and services. Asher Bakery argue they are not discriminating against homosexual people – whom they are happy to serve – they were simply unwilling to bake a cake containing the requested content.

On this particular issue, I rather have sympathy for the bakery. Should they have simply refused to bake a cake for a homosexual person, or refused to bake a cake because it would be used at a gay marriage ceremony, I should think Mr Lee would have a legitimate case. This would be open and shut discrimination. Indeed, in my personal opinion, it would be equally unnecessary for the Christian conscience to refuse such a request as they would have no part in the actions of the individual nor any part in the day. That they inevitably serve cakes to others – whose lifestyles and parties they no doubt do not endorse – would rather support the claim.

However, the bakery have not refused to serve Mr Lee. They have not refused to bake a cake for any particular gathering. What they have done is refuse to bake content that they find goes against their conscience. It is also worth noting this is not the first cake they have refused. The bakery have turned down cakes containing pornographic images, profanity and other offensive material. The issue is not the person ordering, nor the occasion for which it is ordered, but the content of the cake itself. 

Though this is obviously an emotive and current issue, let us make the same case for a white supremacist asking for a cake containing racially offensive material. Now, most of us would have no problem defending the bakery for refusing such business. Nobody would be screaming political discrimination here and, were they to, most would ignore it and side with the bakers. Yet, on the actual issue at hand – again a matter of content rather than buyer – we have a discrimination case being brought. Aside from their mainstream palatability, what is the difference between the two cases?

If this discrimination case goes ahead, and is won, a series of questions will follow. Most significant of these would be are there any grounds to ever refuse business now? Would the bakery be forced to produce any content, no matter what it contained, or face legal action? If so, would this extend to any and every service provider? Would Christians be forced to produce content for people specifically seeking to belittle their own faith?

I broadly think anti-discrimination legislation is good. I am certainly not arguing that Christians should never serve people with whom they disagree. It is quite right that people should be served equally as people. Nevertheless, in this particular case, I find myself siding with the bakery. They aren’t refusing to serve people equally, they are simply refusing particular content regardless of whomever it is that was asking for it, LGBT or otherwise.