A dispute over pizza in Indiana has lead to a discussion abotu the nature of freedom. Sort of. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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Watch out for “Big Gay”: why the freedom to discriminate is a funny sort of freedom

Discrimination under the banner of “freedom” is on the rise again.

How, you may well ask, did a dispute over pizza and cake lead to a question about the nature of freedom? Food and for that matter, drink haven’t exactly played a leading role in the construction of the so called free world, but they’ve always been lurking in the background. There was the Boston Tea Party. “Let them eat cake,” tower-haired posho Marie Antoinette probably didn’t say. “Ich bin ein Berliner [a doughnut]”, JFK definitely did say. This time around, freedom is being called into question at a pizzeria in Indiana and a bakery in Belfast.

Last year, a Christian-owned bakery refused, kind of predictably, to make a cake that celebrated same-sex marriage. Finally, last month, the discrimination case brought against Ashers Baking Company went to court. Meanwhile Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party have been happily beavering away at some legislation that would protect businesses exactly like Belfast’s most reactionary confectioner from having to relinquish their religious principles to the evil Gay Agenda. That’s to say, the DUP want to officially legalise discrimination against LGBT people by businesses.

Also last month, owners of a pizzeria in the American Midwest whined about being persecuted into niceness. The owner of Memories Pizza in Indiana isn’t just rubbish at coming up with restaurant names, she’s also quite rubbish at not being bigot. And the fact that she thinks a gay couple would allow somewhere called Memories Pizza to cater their big day certainly hints at her never even met an actual homosexual. What’s more, fictional Indiana stateswoman and friend o’gays Leslie Knope would most likely be ashamed of the (now amended) corresponding “religious freedom” bill which threatened to legally entrench anti-gay discrimination in that state.

Aside from being small businesses run by even smaller minded people, what the UK bakery and US pizzeria have in common is their dependence on discrimination in the guise of freedom. In several US states, religious freedom bills are threatening to override anti-discrimination ones. The idea that business owners should be free not to accommodate LGBT people, on moral grounds, is right at libertarianism’s core. The spate of religious freedom bills are an important reminder that this is a political philosophy that favours the rights of bullies over their victims. It’s about the right to shoot over the right not to be shot and the right to be an utter bastard over the right to not have to suffer utter bastards.

Right-leaning LGBT people drawn to libertarianism for its supposed social liberalness, especially those voting in next year’s US presidential election, need to take a much closer looks at whose interests Republican senators like Rand Paul represent. Paul, a reasonably hardcore libertarian and presidential hopeful, is no proponent of gay rights. In a 2013 TV interview, when asked about his position on gay rights, Paul said, “I don’t really believe in rights based on your behaviour”. Except, of course, when it comes to the behaviour of gun owners. Or the behaviour of racists and homophobes. “Republican in not giving a fuck about gay rights shocker” isn’t going to appear on any front pages soon, but it’s essential that libertarianism isn’t seen as the cuddly (as cuddly as anything inspired by Ayn Rand can be…) sort of conservatism.

Bryan Fischer, head of the fundamentalist Christian American Family Association, recently tweeted that something called Big Gay is trying to restrict religious freedoms. Big Gay. Like Big Oil, or Big Pharma. I hope I’m not alone in finding this new term for the “gay agenda” more precious than a hedgehog in a tutu. And I’d personally like to thank Fischer for giving me the opportunity to tell people, “I work for Big Gay.” It sounds so much better than, “I lie in bed writing down words, eating Mini Cheddars and trying to masturbate as little as humanly possible.”

The fact is though that Big Gay exists. And thank fuck for that. Freedom to discriminate is a funny sort of freedom. I’d like to say it’s the kind that could only exist in a country where you can buy ammunition from supermarkets, but we have a fair bit of it in the UK too, as proven by the Belfast gay cake debacle. Meanwhile, LGBT activist group All Out have nearly reached their goal of 300,000 signatures for a petition aimed at blocking the DUP’s proposed anti-gay amendment. Nice work, Big Gay.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

Photo: Getty
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The Home Office made Theresa May. But it could still destroy her

Even politicians who leave the Home Office a success may find themselves dogged by it. 

Good morning. When Theresa May left the Home Office for the last time, she told civil servants that there would always be a little bit of the Home Office inside her.

She meant in terms of its enduring effect on her, but today is a reminder of its enduring ability to do damage on her reputation in the present day.

The case of Jamal al-Harith, released from Guantanamo Bay under David Blunkett but handed a £1m compensation payout under Theresa May, who last week died in a suicide bomb attack on Iraqi forces in Mosul, where he was fighting on behalf of Isis. 

For all Blunkett left in the wake of a scandal, his handling of the department was seen to be effective and his reputation was enhanced, rather than diminished, by his tenure. May's reputation as a "safe pair of hands" in the country, as "one of us" on immigration as far as the Conservative right is concerned and her credibility as not just another headbanger on stop and search all come from her long tenure at the Home Office. 

The event was the cue for the Mail to engage in its preferred sport of Blair-bashing. It’s all his fault for the payout – which in addition to buying al-Harith a house may also have fattened the pockets of IS – and the release. Not so fast, replied Blair in a punchy statement: didn’t you campaign for him to be released, and wasn’t the payout approved by your old pal Theresa May? (I paraphrase slightly.)

That resulted in a difficult Q&A for Downing Street’s spokesman yesterday, which HuffPo’s Paul Waugh has posted in full here. As it was May’s old department which has the job of keeping tabs on domestic terror threats the row rebounds onto her. 

Blair is right to say that every government has to “balance proper concern for civil liberties with desire to protect our security”. And it would be an act of spectacular revisionism to declare that Blair’s government was overly concerned with civil liberty rather than internal security.

Whether al-Harith should never have been freed or, as his family believe, was picked up by mistake before being radicalised in prison is an open question. Certainly the journey from wrongly-incarcerated fellow traveller to hardened terrorist is one that we’ve seen before in Northern Ireland and may have occurred here.

Regardless, the presumption of innocence is an important one but it means that occasionally, that means that someone goes on to commit crimes again. (The case of Ian Stewart, convicted of murdering the author Helen Bailey yesterday, and who may have murdered his first wife Diane Stewart as well, is another example of this.)

Nonetheless, May won’t have got that right every time. Her tenure at the Home Office, so crucial to her reputation as a “safe pair of hands”, may yet be weaponised by a clever rival, whether from inside or outside the Conservative Party. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.