The Christian owners of a bakery in Belfast have won a Supreme Court appeal over a finding that they discriminated against a customer by refusing to make a cake decorated with the words “Support Gay Marriage”.
Five justices at the UK’s highest court unanimously ruled on Wednesday that the McArthur family did not discriminate against gay rights activist Gareth Lee on the ground of sexual orientation.
The court’s 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.”
Announcing the court’s ruling on Lee’s claim against Ashers bakery, Lady Hale said: “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 judge 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.”
The ruling follows the latest round of a legal action brought against family-run Ashers bakery in Belfast by 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 legal action against Ashers was taken by Lee with support from Northern Ireland’s Equality Commission.
Controversy first flared when 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 Lee’s sexuality, rather the message he was seeking to put on the cake.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK or Ireland where same-sex marriage is outlawed, with Theresa May’s DUP allies staunch opponents of changing the law.
Speaking outside the Supreme Court after the judgment was handed down, 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.”
Reacting to the judgment, John O’Doherty, Director of The Rainbow Project said: “We are disappointed by this judgment.
“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.”
Meanwhile human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell described the verdict as a “victory for freedom of expression.”
He said: “Although I profoundly disagree with Ashers opposition to marriage equality, in a free society neither they nor anyone else should be forced to facilitate a political idea that they oppose.
“The ruling does not permit anyone to discriminate against LGBT people. Such discrimination rightly remains unlawful.
“Ashers did not discriminate against the customer, Gareth Lee, because he was gay. They objected to the message he wanted on the cake: Support gay marriage.′
“Discrimination against LGBT people is wrong. But in a free society, people should be able to discriminate against ideas that they disagree with. I am glad the court upheld this important liberal principle.”