A Baker in Northern Ireland, where same-sex marriage is still illegal, was fined thousands of dollars for refusing to make a cake for a gay customer bearing the slogan "Support Gay Marriage" alongside a depiction of "Sesame Street" characters Bert and Ernie because doing so would have violated the bakery owner’s religious beliefs. The gay customer, Gareth Lee, had sued Ashers Bakery under Ireland's anti-discrimination laws and the auspices of Northern Ireland’s “Equality Commission.” As Shawn Pogatchnik reports for The Associated Press:
In her ruling, Belfast Judge Isobel Brownlie called the bakery's cancellation of the order "direct discrimination for which there can be no justification." The judge said the bakery was a business, not a religious organization, and therefore had no legal basis to reject an order based on a customer's sexual orientation or beliefs.
But what justification is there for the state to force any private business to serve any customer, or serve a particular product? None, if the right to freedom of association means anything. The government should be protecting everyone’s rights equally and at all times. Both gay marriage and a cake sale are contractual arrangements derived from freedom of association. The very basis of freedom of association is voluntary agreement and consent. If the state is to protect liberty, it must protect everyone’s right to associate or not associate according to one’s own judgement.
The inalienable rights of gays to forge a marriage contract recognized by law—or for anyone, gay or not, to advocate such views—does not include the right to force others to do business with them. It is just as wrong for Lee to exploit an unjust law banning discrimination to impose his values on Ashers Bakery by forcing it to serve him a cake advocating gay marriage as it is for the government to impose the bakery owners’ standards on gays by legally banning gay marriage.
The bakery owners' son, Daniel McArthur, was reported to have said on behalf of his family, "We just want to live and work in accordance with our religious beliefs.” But if that desire extends to favoring a legal ban on gay marriage, then it is not just a personal matter, because bans on gay marriage violate the rights of same-sex couples to freedom of contract and association. But as a personal matter, Ashers Bakery has every right to refuse to serve Lee the cake advocating beliefs the owners disagree with.
As a private business, Liberty Ridge has a right to choose its associations and to contract with customers on voluntary, mutually agreed terms. Freedom of contract means not only the right to voluntarily contract with others, but also to refrain from doing so for whatever reason or even no reason. Asher’s refusal to serve Lee his cake, however irrational their reasons may be, does not violate Lee’s rights or the rights of gays generally—as Lee was free to take his business elsewhere—just as a gay couple marrying does not violate the rights of Christians or heterosexual couples, who are free not to marry someone of the same sex or attend a gay wedding.
Shame on Asher’s owners for supporting a legal ban on gay marriage, if in fact that’s the case. And—though his anger at anti-marriage equality Christians is understandable—shame on Lee for forcing Ashers into court, and for supporting laws that force businesses to contract against their will. Gay marriage advocates undercut their own case for their contractual and associational rights by simultaneously fighting to violate the same rights of others. Likewise, Christian business owners who support bans on gay marriage have no credibility when they complain that anti-discrimination laws violate their religious beliefs. Both sides are hypocritical. The only resolution to the Ashers Bakery and similar conflicts is to fully and consistently uphold the rights to freedom of contract and association by defending equally the rights of gays to marry and the rights of business owners to serve or not serve whom they choose.
How Property Rights Solve Problems—David R. Henderson for the Library of Economics and Liberty
Gay Marriage: The Right to Voluntary Contract, Not Coercive 'Contract'