Maajid Nawaz on Wedding Cakes: Gay Slogans, Drawing Muhammad, etc.

I confess that I’ve never been terribly bothered over the issue of gay wedding cakes. I do think private businesses are subject to discrimination laws and that bakeries should thus be required to serve gay couples. But the recent case in Ireland isn’t so straightforward. In this case, the bakers refused not just to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, but to make one that featured the particular slogan, “Support Gay Marriage”. They were fined for it, and in this case, I think that’s wrong. I am in agreement with Maajid Nawaz, who says that we should not be stopping bigotry by banning discriminatory expression, which only exacerbates and increases bigotry. On Facebook he says:

“Discriminating against a person by refusing to serve them for being gay, or brown, is wrong and rightly illegal. But refusing to endorse an idea that promotes equality — though also wrong — should remain legal, so that free speech can challenge it [instead of allowing the government to silence it]. No matter how silly Muslim fundamentalists can be (and silly they are) they should be allowed to refuse drawing the prophet Muhammad on a cake. So too these Christian bakers should have been left alone.”

Christian bakers must serve gay couples their cakes, but they shouldn’t have to supply specific slogans which advocate politically or offend religiously. Islamic bakers should not have to draw the prophet Muhammad. Jewish bakers should not have to write, “Hitler reigns supreme” for neo-Nazi couples. Etc.

The point made by Maajid is simple. Discrimination laws apply to people, not ideas. Business owners have to tolerate and serve those they would rather not, without being required to supply particular ideas which go against their beliefs — whether those beliefs are those we might sympathize with (in my example of the Jewish baker), or not (in my examples of the Christian and Islamic bakers). You don’t leave this kind of subjectivity in the hands of the government to decide.

And seriously, it’s the businesses who suffer more than the aggrieved customers in any case. By refusing a customer’s request, the bakery has lost a customer — and will continue to lose customers (and money) by exercising their free expression. Which is Maajid’s whole point: gay couples can protest bakeries, not by infringing on the business owner’s free expression, but with their wallet. Just go to a goddamn baker who will supply the particulars you want. If enough people do this, the business owner will suffer. That’s how you fight objectionable ideas. Not through governmental tyranny, but by your own free expression and supporting businesses who are more enlightened.


8 thoughts on “Maajid Nawaz on Wedding Cakes: Gay Slogans, Drawing Muhammad, etc.

  1. If Muslim bakers were asked to bake a generic cake, but were explicitly told that the cake would be served at a Koran-burning event—or if Jewish bakers were told the generic cake would be served at a Hitler-praising neo-Nazi convention—should they be allowed to refuse without civil or legal penalty?

    The Colorado bakers argued that they didn’t refuse service *because the customers were gay*, but because it would be served at a gay wedding—an event with which to be even indirectly complicit would violate their sincerely-held religious convictions. From a contemporary news report on the subject: “If gays come in and want to order birthday cakes or any cakes for any occasion, graduations, or whatever, I have no prejudice against that whatsoever,” Phillips said. “It’s just the wedding cake, not the people, not their lifestyle.” Later, when they lost the case in court, they decided to stop making wedding cakes at all.

    If you answered yes, but reject the Colorado bakers’ argument, in what sense are the former parties refusing to endorse an idea that the latter was not? In what sense are the former parties not discriminating against a person (or set of people) that the latter was?

  2. Had I been the judge in the Colorado case, I would have laughed the baker out of court. When, ever, are wedding cakes not served at weddings? If the bakers can’t handle the fact that their product will used for the purpose it was designed, they’re in the wrong business.

    And no, doing business with your customers doesn’t make you complicit in what they do with your product, or imply that you endorse it. It’s the oldest adage: it’s just business. An explicit advocacy slogan from the hand of the business owner, on the other hand, is a different thing, and in my view a legitimate thing to refuse.

    I should add something else: I believe that business owners should have the right to refuse particulars which offend them, as long as there is no equity conflict. For example, if a prudish wedding-cake baker won’t provide sexually explicit/pornographic images on the cake, I think that’s fine. But the baker has to apply the principle consistently. In other words, he can’t refuse to supply gay pornographic images, while agreeing to provide heterosexual ones. Or similarly, if it’s just about putting two men figures or two women figures at the top of the cake, again, the decision to not do so would have to be applied with equity — meaning that as a matter of policy, figures are not provided at all. The equity issue is irrelevant in the above Ireland case, because no heterosexual couple ever comes into a bakery requesting the slogan, “Support heterosexual marriage”. “Support gay marriage” is an explicit political or religio (or both) advocacy, which commercial owners, I believe, should have the right to refuse.

  3. Just to clarify, you are arguing that business transactions don’t make vendors complicit in, or constitute an endorsement of, what their customers do, even when they are *fully aware* of what the customer is going to do with the purchase? Are there any boundary conditions to that claim? Would Russia be free of any guilt if they sold nuclear weapons to ISIS which were then detonated in the West?

  4. Arms, weapons, drugs, or anything directly bearing on the physical safety or health of others could make the vendor complicit, depending on circumstances. I don’t think Maajid had life-threatening issues in view, and I certainly didn’t.

  5. Fair. I think that religious dissidents who deny that same sex marriages can even exist in principle, who claim that homosexual behavior is a sin, argue that these unions harm society to the degree that they harm the smallest unit of society, i.e. the family. You may disagree with those views, and indeed, the state does, in that it recognizes same sex marriages. Nonetheless, these are sincerely-held religious convictions on which people of goodwill may disagree. If we cannot compel an individual to formally cooperate with beliefs they reject, or to materially cooperate with objective physical harm, I would argue that we cannot compel an individual with civil penalties to materially cooperate with what they sincerely believe to be societal harm.

  6. Well, I take for granted that secular same-sex marriages should be recognized (secular marriages are just a contract between two parties, which the constitution protects without discrimination), but what churches or any religious bodies do can be in accordance with their doctrine.

  7. I guess – legally – the argument would be that the gay couple in question were the victims of discrimination: that is, if a heterosexual couple had asked the bakers to decorate the cake with a slogan endorsing heterosexual marriage, this wouldn’t have been an issue.

    By extension, I’m not sure Nawaz’s analogy holds. If the case had involved a Muslim Fundamentalist baker being asked to draw a cartoon of the prophet on a cake and refusing to do so, chances are the the court would have found in his favour – because the person who requested it would not have been the victim of discrimination. How could they be? And I think this would have been tempered by a certain sympathy for the Muslim baker (albeit not one that was legally binding). Similarily, a Jewish baker (or indeed any baker in the EU) who was asked to decorate a cake with pro-Nazi slogan would be well within his rights refusing to do so: indeed, anybody who asked for such a slogan could be charged with Hate Speech.

    I think there’s a fundamental difference in the US and the European mind-set in this regard – ie, in terms of the contract the citizen has with the state. In the US, freedom of speech is sacrosanct, with all the ramifications this entails. In the EU and the UK, people are happy to surrender the right to say what they like in favour of protecting the rights of minorities.

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