Somehow, bakers have often found themselves at the center of the debate surrounding marriage, gay rights, and illegal discrimination. Not long after “gay wedding cakes” (or, more accurately, wedding cakes made for gay couples) made headlines in America, the bakery controversy has worked its way overseas. Ashers Bakery, a family operation in the United Kingdom, was found guilty of illegal discrimination after refusing to ice a cake with the words “Support Gay Marriage” next to a picture of Sesame Street‘s Bert and Ernie. The owners cited their “biblical beliefs” to justify their refusal of the request.
The bakers have an unlikely defender in actor Patrick Stewart, who is a vocal supporter of gay rights, and has worked closely in advocacy with fellow Star Trek alum, George Takei. While Stewart believes businesses should not be able to refuse service on the basis of their customers’ sexual orientations, he draws the line when a business owner is asked to deliver a message he or she does not agree with.
“It was not because it was a gay couple that they objected; it was not because they were celebrating some sort of marriage or an agreement between them,” said Stewart. “It was the actual words on the cake they objected to. Because they found the words offensive,” Stewart said.
First, credit to Stewart for his willingness to take this position, even as he remains strong in his support of same-sex marriage. In a political climate where individuals are expected to position themselves either 100 percent on one side of an issue or 100 percent on the other, it is refreshing to see him acknowledge the nuances that surround cases like this one. He’s sure to encounter a lot of backlash for these comments, even though they do not undermine his equal-rights stance.
Even though I admire his frankness and understand his angle, I have to conclude that he’s slightly off-base here. He’s right to assert that no one can be forced to support same-sex marriage, nor should they be. But the key question is whether making this cake would have truly constituted a show of support for same-sex marriage. The business owners were not asked to write “Ashers Bakery Supports Gay Marriage”; they were merely asked to write “Support Gay Marriage.”
I should note that I’m not terribly interested in the question of whether the bakers’ actions should be illegal. I’m more concerned with what decent, professional business owners should do in this situation, rather than what they are allowed to do under the law. I’m a writer. Let’s say someone asked me to create a slogan for a position I deeply disagreed with, like: “Pizza is disgusting.” Or maybe something even more divisive, like: “Abortion is always wrong.” Should I contribute to the advertisement of these beliefs? It’s a tough choice, but professionals in any field are bound to come up against such conflicts now and again. Part of professionalism is the willingness to treat each customer with care and execute their requests with excellence, regardless of which ones you’d prefer to spend time with outside of work. Refusing to do so limits opportunities for personal exploration and growth, and only serves to deepen trenches of ideological inflexibility.
So, I thank Stewart for adding his voice to the rabble, and I’m not going to weigh in on whether the owners of Ashers Bakery should be found guilty of a crime, fined, jailed, or drawn and quartered. That’s something for legal and political scholars to figure out. But as someone who’s worked for (and with) all different types of people, I’m of the opinion that we’re all better off if we just go ahead and frost the cake.
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Below, musician and writer (and general cool dude) Henry Rollins discusses gay marriage and homophobia, pegging the latter as a cultural ill certain to fade away: