A bakery in Northern Ireland won an appeal in a discrimination case, locally nicknamed the ‘gay cake’ case, when the UK Supreme Court ruled on Oct. 10 that the bakers were within their rights—as protected by the law—to refuse a cake order that carried a message supportive of gay marriage. The bakers were Christian.
The court’s panel of five justices unanimously ruled that the bakery’s decision to refuse making a cake that featured the words “Support Gay Marriage” was not based on sexual discrimination.
“I do not seek to minimise or disparage the very real problem of discrimination against gay people,” president of the Supreme Court Lady Hale wrote in the decision.
“It is deeply humiliating, and an affront to human dignity, to deny someone a service because of that person’s race, gender, disability, sexual orientation or any of the other protected personal characteristics.
“But that is not what happened in this case.”
The legal dispute began in 2014 when Gareth Lee, a gay rights activist, placed an order at Ashers Baking Co. in Belfast for the cake with the pro-gay marriage message and pictures of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street.
The family-run bakery initially accepted the order, wanting to save the client any embarrassment despite knowing their objection to the cake’s message. Ashers later decided it had to refuse the order and refunded Lee. Lee subsequently sued the bakery for sexual discrimination—his action backed by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.
In May 2015, the Belfast County Court ruled that Lee had been discriminated against based on his sexual orientation. The bakery had to pay Lee damages of £500 ($660), and subsequently lost an appeal to the Court of Appeals in October 2016.
Ashers said they refused the order because of the message on the cake—which was not aligned with the company’s views—and not because of Lee’s sexual orientation. The company added that they would have refused the same order from a heterosexual client.
The UK Supreme Court ruled on Oct. 10 that freedom of expression—guaranteed by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights—includes the right “not to express an opinion which one does not hold.”
The decision cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (pdf) in their ruling, noting the differences between the cases.
“The important message from the Masterpiece Cakeshop case is that there is a clear distinction between refusing to produce a cake conveying a particular message … and refusing … because of that customer’s characteristics,” the UK Supreme Court ruling read.
Bakery general manager Daniel McArthur said he was delighted and relieved by the ruling.
“I know a lot of people will be glad to hear this ruling today, because this ruling protects freedom of speech and freedom of conscience for everyone,” McArthur said outside the court in London on Oct. 10, the BBC reported.
“The judges have given a clear signal today,” he said, according to the ABC. “Family businesses like ours are free to give customers the best service they can without being forced to promote other people’s campaigns.”
Lee said he was concerned about what the ruling might mean for the gay community.
“This was never about conscience or a statement,” he said, referring to the shop’s refusal to make the cake “in conscience.”
“All I wanted to do was to order a cake in a shop,” Lee said.
A cake was eventually ordered and made at another bakery.
The legal dispute has costed about £450,000 ($595,600) combined—with £200,000 ($264,700) from the Ashers and £250,000 ($303,900) from the Equality Commission of Northern Ireland—whereas the original cake would have costed £36.50 ($48.30), according to the BBC.
“Questions will now be asked as to whether the Equality Commission was right to spend more than £250,000 of public money on this case,” BBC reporter Mark Simpson wrote after the Supreme Court ruling. “It has proved to be the most expensive cake order in UK history.”
I have written to the Secretary of State for NI calling for a review of funding for the equality commission. After such a decisive finding by the Supreme Court the equality commissions immediate response has been to threaten to waste more public money on this case. Stop it now!
— Ian Paisley MP (@ianpaisleymp) October 10, 2018
Ian Paisley Jr. MP of the Democratic Unionist Party said he has called for a review of the Equality Commission’s funding.
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