Christian bakers Daniel and Amy McArthur of Ashers Bakery in Belfast, Northern Ireland did not discriminate against homosexual customer Gareth Lee, because of his sexual orientation, when they refused to bake him a cake featuring a slogan supporting gay marriage, the United Kingdom’s highest court ruled today.
“Their objection was to the message on the cake not to the personal characteristics of Mr Lee,” said Lady Brenda Hale, president of the UK Supreme Court, while delivering a unanimous decision by five Supreme Court judges to uphold the couple’s appeal against claims of discrimination.
After his ‘gay cake’ order was turned down in 2014, Lee reported Ahers Bakery to the Equality Commission who took the bakery to court. Ashers was ordered to pay R6 700 (£500) in damages for breaching anti-discrimination laws, a decision upheld by the Court of Appeal.
In her judgment which is significant not only for Northern Ireland but for the whole of the United Kingdom, Lady Hale said: “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.”
Lady Hale said the ruling was 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,” she ruled.
Grateful to God
Responding to the ruling this morning, Daniel McArthur, Ashers’ General Manager, said the couple was delighted, relieved, grateful to the judges and especially grateful to God.
“We’re particularly pleased the Supreme Court emphatically accepted what we’ve said all along – we did not turn down this order because of the person who made it, but because of the message itself,” he said.
“We want to move on from this now, and I’m sure Mr Lee does too. And let me just finish by saying that he will always be welcome at any of our shops,” he told Christianity Today.
Speaking on behalf of The Christian Institute, which supported the Christian bakers through their legal battles, deputy director (public affairs) Simon Calvert called the ruling “a total vindication of Ashers Baking Company and the McArthur family.”
‘About the message, not the messenger’
“The court strongly agreed with Ashers’ lawyers that this case has always been about the message on the cake and not the customer; the message, not the messenger.
“Equality law was never intended to be used in the way the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland tried to use it in this case.”
In its response to today’s judgment the Equality Commission said it was disappointed and “will have to look at the implications of its judgment carefully.”
Lee today expressed his disappointment with the Supreme Court ruling, saying he was made to feel “like a second-class citizen” by Ashers’ refusal to make the cake he requested.
“The judgment today tells me that’s okay,” he said.
‘Victory for free speech’
But long-time gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell had a different perspective. He welcomed the ruling, saying: “This verdict is a victory for freedom of expression. As well as meaning that Ashers cannot be legally forced to aid the promotion of same-sex marriage, it also means that gay bakers cannot be compelled by law to decorate cakes with anti-gay marriage slogans.
“Businesses can now lawfully refuse a customer’s request to emblazon a political message if they have a conscientious objection to it. This includes the right to refuse messages that are sexist, xenophobic or anti-gay, which is a good thing.
“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,” he said.