The Supreme Court in London has ruled in favour of the Christian owners of a Northern Ireland bakery who refused to bake a cake with a message in support of same-sex marriage.
The UK’s highest court ruled that the baker’s objection was “to the message and not to the man.”
Their ruling follows the latest round of a legal action 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. The bakery went on to fight the finding of discrimination at a Supreme Court hearing in Belfast in May.
The Supreme Court ruled today, however, that there was no discrimination based on either sexual orientation or political and religious views in this case.
The president of the Supreme Court, Lady Hale, delivered the following ruling: “As to Mr Lee’s claim based on sexual orientation 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.
“Their objection was to the message on the cake, and not to the personal characteristics of Mr Lee or anyone else with whom he was association.
The message on the cake would not just be for the benefit of gay people but also for their families and friends and anyone else who recognises the social benefits which the commitment involved in gay marriage can bring.
Accordingly, this court holds that there was no discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation of Mr Lee or anyone else with whom he was associated.”
Lady Hale continued: “As to the claim based on religious belief or political opinion, the holder of the belief or political opinion in question has to be someone other than the alleged discriminator.
Once again, the bakers’ objection was to the message and not to the man. It was not that Mr Lee was being refused a job, accommodation, or baked goods in general because of his political opinion. The evidence was that the bakers were quite willing to employ and to serve gay people.
So the answer in the claim based on political opinion may be the same as the answer to the claim based on sexual orientation.
However, there was a much closer association between the political opinion of the man - that is in favour of gay marriage - and the message he wanted to promote, so that it could be argued that the two could not be separated when considering whether he had been discriminated against on the grounds of his political opinion.”
She referred to Articles 9 and 10 of the European Court of Human Rights.
“If so, it would be necessary to consider the impact on the McArthur’s rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 9 of the convention protects the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the right to manifest one’s religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance,” Lady Hale said.
“The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, and the judicial committee of the privy council here, have held it to be an interference with this right to oblige, in case, non-believers to swear a Christian oath as a condition of remaining a member of parliament, and in the other case to oblige a Muslim soldier to remain present and doff his cap during Christian prayers at ceremonial parades and at morning and evening colorus.
The freedom not to express an opinion which one does not hold is also protected by article 10 of the convention, which provides that everyone has the right to freedom of expression.
“This court has held tat nobpdy should be forced to have or express a political opinion in which he does not believe.
Convention rights can and are limited by the non-discrimination discrimination. 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. The fair employment and treatment order should not be read and given effect in such a way as to compel them to do so.”
She added: “Accordingly this court holds that the claim based on Mr Lee’s political opinion also fails, and thus it allows the bakers’ appeal.
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”