Supreme Court backs refusal right of religious bakers

10 October 2018

Today the Supreme Court found in favour of a Christian couple who refused to bake a cake with the message “Support Gay Marriage” iced on to it. The judgment in Lee v Ashers Baking Company Ltd and others [2018] UKSC 49 can be found here.

Mr Lee is a gay man who supports QueerSpace, an organisation for the LGBT community in Belfast. He was invited to attend a party in May 2014 to mark the end of Northern Ireland anti-homophobia week. He decided to take a cake and ordered one from Ashers.

Ashers are a bakery business established in 1992 with six bakeries. The company is run by a couple whose religious beliefs include that: “(a) the  only  form  of  full  sexual  expression  which  is  consistent  with Biblical teaching (and therefore acceptable to God) is that between a man and a woman within marriage; and (b) the  only  form  of  marriage  consistent  with  Biblical  teaching  (and therefore acceptable to God) is that between a man and a woman.

Mr Lee used Asher’s “Build-a-Cake” service to request an iced image of Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie with “Support Gay Marriage” written alongside. After initially accepting the order, the Ashers contacted Mr Lee to inform him that they would not be able to produce such a cake as the message did not fit with their religious beliefs.

Another bakery produced the cake for Mr Lee and he subsequently raised the Ashers matter with the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI). With support from the ECNI, Mr Lee took the matter to the County Court where his discrimination claim was successful and he was awarded £500. Ashers appealed to the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal and lost. Ashers appealed to the Supreme Court and were successful.

The Supreme Court concluded that Ashers’ decision was not based on Mr Lee’s sexual orientation or his association with the gay community but on the message to be printed on the cake. In giving the unanimous judgment, Lady Hale stated “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 and it does the project of equal treatment no favours to seek to extend it beyond its proper scope”.

The judgment also set out that: “The freedom not to be obliged to hold or to manifest beliefs that one does not hold is also protected by article 10 of the [European Convention on Human Rights]”.

Mr Lee is said to be considering his options including whether to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

As an aside, we note that in September 2018 the Sesame Workshop confirmed that Bert and Ernie are not gay (or straight) but are co-habiting best friends; as puppets they have no sexual orientation.

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