‘Gay cake’ case: the libertarian argument for same-sex marriage has paved the way for intolerance

Daniel McArthur of Ashers Bakers faces the media (PA)

As many people have already observed, the bakery discrimination case involving the Ashers is bound to have an influence on the same-sex marriage vote in Ireland.

The argument put forward in favour of same-sex marriage has always been an essentially libertarian one; that is, if you don’t like gay marriage, don’t marry a man. But, as the Ashers case shows, it doesn’t work out like that. Gay marriage, despite what many Conservatives proposed, cannot be a libertarian issue after all.

A few weeks ago Tim Montgomerie wrote a cover piece on the issue of religious freedom for this magazine. Now I would consider Tim to be one of the rising spiritual leaders of authentic British conservatism, even if he’s not quite at the level of, say, grand ayatollah Charles Moore. But there’s one thing I would disagree with him on, which is where he wrote:

I would argue that, most importantly, we should stop fighting battles that are already lost. Continuing to resist gay equality laws strikes me as the most important of such battles. If the Church continues to fight the right of one man to marry another man it will continue to increase the number of ‘nones’ that I began this article with, especially among younger citizens. Churches should give up trying to impose Christian morality on everybody else and instead fight to protect their right to organise themselves according to biblical orthodoxies. I’m not convinced that this is a winnable battle, but it is the only battle in this area that is conceivably winnable.

I certainly would have agreed with that a year ago. After all, if we are to take the Burkean line that appeals to religious doctrine should be left out of political disputes, then the conservative case for gay marriage is quite strong, illustrated here.

But there has been an unintended consequence from gay marriage, something I don’t think the Conservative leadership predicted. What I really objected to from the start was that this debate unleashed the worst sort of moral absolutism and sanctimony from campaigners, the prima facie argument being that anyone who objected to such a radical change was simply a bigot. One of the least attractive traits of religious people, I’ve always found, is sanctimony, one of the reasons I always switch off the radio at 7.48 every morning; it’s also what I find so unattractive about many people campaigning for ‘equality’ in any of its guises.

And within this atmosphere of moral absolutism, the libertarian argument that social conservatives can simply ignore gay marriage is just not true; but it’s also the case that they can’t ignore it legally. Traditional Christians have formerly been protected in their view of sexual relationships because they could firmly state that any sex outside marriage was forbidden, whoever was involved.

But now that the state has redefined what marriage is there is no legal way for them to argue this; all they can say is that they don’t recognise certain types of marriage. But marriage is a very clear, legal agreement, it’s not an ambiguous, ‘it’s complicated’ sort of thing, and a society can’t have a situation where certain people are simply allowed to not recognise some contracts they disagree with.

Did the Government foresee this happening at all? I suspect not, yet one of the most important principles of conservatism is that of unintended consequences; it applies to everything from 1960s welfare to foreign intervention in the Middle East.

In the United States the introduction of same-sex marriage has led to numerous small businesses (many bakeries which, strangely, have come to the fore of political conflict), being taken through the courts and more is to follow; whatever side of the cultural war, no one can say that this change has dampened down that conflict in the US. The same will probably be true here.