Northern Ireland news

'Gay cake' case: Supreme Court rules Ashers did not discriminate against customer

Ashers bakery owners Daniel and Amy McArthur outside the Supreme Court in London, where five justices unanimously ruled this morning that the Christian owners did not discriminate against gay rights activist Gareth Lee on the ground of sexual orientation 
Cathy Gordon, Press Association

The Christian owners of a bakery have won an appeal at the UK's highest court over a finding that they discriminated against a customer by refusing to make a cake decorated with the words "Support Gay Marriage".

Five Supreme Court justices allowed a challenge by the McArthur family in a unanimous ruling in London on Wednesday in what has become widely known as the "gay cake case".

The legal action was originally brought against family-run Ashers bakery in Belfast by gay rights activist Gareth Lee, who won his case initially in the county court and then at the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal.

Announcing the court's decision, its president, Lady Hale, said: "This conclusion is not in any way to diminish the need to protect gay people and people who support gay marriage from discrimination.

"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, religion or belief.

"But that is not what happened in this case."

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She went on: "As to Mr Lee's claim based on sexual discrimination, the bakers did not refuse to fulfil his order because of his sexual orientation.

"They would have refused to make such a cake for any customer, irrespective of their sexual orientation."

The court also said Mr Lee had no claim against Ashers on the grounds of religious belief or political opinion.

Lady Hale added: "The bakers could not refuse to supply their goods to Mr Lee because he was a gay man or supported gay marriage, but that is quite different from obliging them to supply a cake iced with a message with which they profoundly disagreed.

Ashers bakery refused to make a cake bearing the slogan 'Support gay marriage'

Speaking outside the Supreme Court after the judgment was handed down, Gareth Lee said: "To me, this was never about a campaign or a statement. All I wanted was to order a cake in a shop that sold cakes to order.

"I paid my money, my money was taken and then a few days later it was refused.

"That made me feel like a second-class citizen.

"I'm concerned not just for the implications for myself and other gay people, but for every single one of us."

Dr Michael Wardlow, chief commissioner of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, said the judgment "may raise uncertainty" about what businesses can do and what customers may expect.

It also raises the prospect that "the beliefs of business owners may take precedence over a customer's equality rights, which in our view is contrary to what the legislature intended", he said.

Gareth Lee speaks to the media outside the Supreme Court in London this morning 

The Rainbow Project, Northern Ireland's largest support organisation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, expressed its disappointment at the Supreme Court ruling.

Director John O'Doherty said: "Ashers agreed to make the cake. They entered into a contractual agreement to make this cake and then changed their mind.

"While sympathetic as some may be to the position in which the company finds itself, this does not change the facts of the case.

"We believe this is direct discrimination for which there can be no justification. We will however take time to study this judgment by the Supreme Court to understand fully its implications for the rights of LGBT people to access goods, facilities and services without discrimination.

Ashers bakery on Royal Avenue, Belfast 

"We do not believe that this matter should have been brought to court. We believe that Ashers bakery should have accepted the Equality Commission's invitation to engage in mediation, where a remedy could have been found without the expense and division surrounding this court case.

"However, most damaging of all has been the attempt by politicians to use this case to justify amending the law to allow businesses to discriminate against LGBT people with the so-called 'conscience clause."'

Daniel and Amy McArthur, who said the law risked "extinguishing" their consciences, were in court for the ruling.

Mr Lee was also present for the latest ruling in a case which has attracted enormous attention.

The bakery's appeal against the finding of discrimination was heard at the Supreme Court sitting in Belfast in May.

During the hearing the justices were told that the owners were being forced to act against their religious beliefs.

David Scoffield QC, for Ashers, argued that the state was penalising the baking firm, with the courts effectively compelling or forcing them to make a cake bearing a message with which they disagree as a matter of religious conscience.

The legal action against Ashers was taken by Mr Lee with support from Northern Ireland's Equality Commission.

Controversy first flared when Mr Lee, a member of the LGBT advocacy group QueerSpace, ordered a cake in 2014 featuring Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie for a private function marking International Day Against Homophobia.

His order was accepted and he paid in full but, two days later, the company called to say it could not proceed due to the message requested.

In the original court case, District Judge Isobel Brownlie ruled that religious beliefs could not dictate the law and ordered the firm to pay damages of £500.

Mounting an unsuccessful challenge at the Court of Appeal in Belfast in 2016, Ashers contended that it never had an issue with Mr Lee's sexuality, rather the message he was seeking to put on the cake.

Mr Scoffield told the justices that the case, a simple transaction, raised an issue of principle since those with deeply-held religious or philosophical convictions could be compelled to act against their beliefs.

Robin Allen QC, for Mr Lee, said: "This was a relatively small incident in his life which has become enormously significant and continues to be so.

"That is a heavy burden to bear for one individual."

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK or Ireland where same-sex marriage is outlawed, with the DUP being staunch opponents of changing the law.

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