In yesterday’s Court of Appeal Decision in Northern Ireland [NICA], Ashers Bakery Co Ltd & Ors -v- Gareth Lee, the NICA ruled against the Asher’s appeal and upheld the County Court’s original decision.
The NICA held that the Christian owners, Mr and Mrs McArthur, of Belfast-based Asher’s Bakery had “discriminated against Gareth Lee directly on the grounds of sexual orientation contrary to the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (NI) 2006 and on the grounds of religious and political belief contrary to the Fair Employment and Treatment (NI) Order 1998” when they declined a cake order featuring Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie iced with the slogan “Support Gay Marriage”.
The family-owned firm acknowledged that the cake order, which had initially been accepted, had been cancelled due to their devout Christian belief that same-sex marriage is contrary to God’s law.
Mr Gareth Lee, a member of the LGBT advocacy group Queer Space, had ordered the cake for a private function for International Day Against Homophobia in May 2014.
The NICA held that the McArthurs’ right to free speech was not being infringed as delivering a service with a particular message did not require them to promote or support gay marriage. In delivering the Judgment, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan stated “The fact that a baker provides a cake for a particular team or portrays witches on a Halloween cake does not indicate any support for either”.
Part of the Appeal, which had suggested that anti-discrimination laws treat less favourably people who share a religious belief, was also ruled out by the court, stating:
“The answer is not to have the legislation changed and thereby remove the equality protection concerned. The answer is for the supplier of services to cease distinguishing, on prohibited grounds, between those who may or may not receive the service. Thus the supplier may provide the particular service to all or none but not to a selection of customers based on prohibited grounds. In the present case the appellants may elect not to provide a service that involves any religious or political message. What they may not do is provide a service that only reflects their own political or religious belief in relation to sexual orientation.”
However the Lord Chief Justice also criticised the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, who were representing Mr Lee, stating that the McArthur family, of the faith community, should have been offered advice ‘at an earlier stage’ due to their deeply held religious beliefs.