Christianity has been responsible for the formation of the bedrock of the political, economic and legal systems that provide the pillars of Western democracy. Yet few would dispute that, during the last 50 years, there has been a steady undermining of the Biblical values that have historically formed the foundations of society and that they no longer have any significant influence on the policies that govern our everyday lives. There has been a steady erosion of Christian values and practice from mainstream society, with the Church and its historic teachings increasingly viewed as outdated, bigoted and largely irrelevant to the modern world in which we live. In most Western nations today, those who continue to adhere to and practice their faith in their daily lives have largely been relegated to sub-culture status.
What many people of faith fail to realise is that the end game of the secular humanist agenda is not to embrace religious tolerance. It is the elimination of religion from society. This view was given a huge boost by the infamous Twin Towers attacks in 9/11, which formed the catalyst for the new atheist movement to attack aggressively any form of faith as being illogical, irrational and downright dangerous to the wellbeing of mankind. At the same time, the so-called sexual revolution, which began in the 1960s with the invention of the pill, has steadily undermined traditional notions of the family. Those who now dare to express the Biblical belief that marriage is a life-long and exclusive union between one man and one woman that provides the only legitimate context for sexual relationships and the raising of the resulting children are frequently vilified and persecuted. Tolerance is reserved for anything and everything that is based upon feelings and relative values. In the new political order, any form of absolutism is seen as both heretical and anti-social – and therefore to be rooted out and destroyed.
Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) is keenly aware of the impetus that the war on faith is gaining globally and the impact that this is having on many people who simply want to live out their lives in good conscience and in peace. However, the expression of faith in society is often treated with intolerance, and those who practice faith are increasingly finding themselves as targets of opportunity by hostile groups that actively work to enforce the new reality of political correctness. This has been highlighted by recent cases in both the USA and Northern Ireland, where Christians in particular have had their lives turned upside down by this collision of worldviews.
In the USA, a 70 year old florist was asked by a long-time friend and customer to provide flowers for his same-sex wedding. When she told him that in good conscience she could not apply her creative gifting to participate in his wedding “because of [her] relationship with Jesus”, she was sued by the Attorney General of Washington State for violating the State’s anti-discrimination law and by the two men in their personal capacities, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In this instance, the Court ruled that while she is free to believe what she wants, she may not practice her religious beliefs in her workplace or the full coercive power of the State will be brought against her. Barronelle Stutzman now faces bankruptcy since both the State and the same-sex couple are allowed to collect damages and attorney’s fees from her personally as well as from her business. (The Washington Supreme Court ruled last month that the Court would be willing to hear an appeal in this matter).
In Northern Ireland, Asher’s Bakery was asked to bake a cake featuring the slogan “Support Gay Marriage” as well as the characters Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street and the logo of pressure group QueerSpace. When the Christian owners turned down the order, the Equality Commission ruled that that this amounted to discrimination, despite the fact that they were unaware of the sexual orientation of the person who placed the order and their response would have been exactly the same if a heterosexual person had asked for the same message on the cake. A Belfast Court later confirmed this ruling, and ordered Asher’s Bakery to pay £500 (R11 400) damages. In their recent appeal, they argued that to be ordered to provide a product with a message that is inconsistent with their deeply-held religious beliefs, is the equivalent to being forced to “to burn a pinch of incense at the altar of a god they do not worship.” Judgement is reserved in the appeal and while it is possible that their argument will prevail, it is clear that an anti-religion agenda will continue to be aggressively pursued.
In South Africa, we are seeing similar trends. In the news this week, another well-known wedding venue in Paarl was lambasted for refusing, on grounds of Christian conscience, to allow a ‘gay wedding ceremony’ on the premises (although it would have no problem hosting the reception). In a recent case before the George Equality Court, a printing company was sued for unfairly discriminating on the grounds of sexual orientation when it refused, on grounds of Christian conscience, to design a gay website which, for them, would be to promote sin. Similarly, in 2014, a homosexual couple sued the Christian owners of a guesthouse in Wolseley for unfair discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. On this occasion, FOR SA, acting as Amicus Curiae, successfully asked the Court to refer the matter for mediation and the parties concluded a settlement agreement in terms whereof the parties agreed to respect each other’s beliefs. This agreement was made an Order of Court.
However, the new reality is that no one is safe from having their business targeted, their lives drastically disrupted and their finances plundered for a crime no greater than holding and acting upon a sincere belief. That said, it is important for people of faith to realise that they cannot hide judgmental attitudes and bigotry behind a defense of religious freedom. We live in a society where our Constitution guarantees a wide range of rights to a wide range of people and the job of the Courts is to balance these rights to ensure that we live in a just and equitable society. Our principle goal must therefore be to protect and preserve the freedoms our Constitution has granted so that we remain free to believe, teach, preach and live out our faith in our daily lives without fear of reprisal or external hindrance.