The great ‘gay cake’ war is over, and the Christians won
After four years of litigation, UK's highest court rules bakery can refuse to decorate a cake with a pro-gay marriage message
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.”
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 Lee had no claim against Ashers on the grounds of religious belief or political opinion, but speaking outside of court, the customer said: “This was never a campaign. I had no idea when I ordered the cake that this would happen.”
He said that the ruling made him feel like a “second-class citizen” in Northern Ireland, adding: “I think this has consequences for everyone. Anyone can walk into a shop – you shouldn’t have to work out if you’re going to be served based on their religious beliefs. I am confused.”
Ashers general manager McArthur thanked God outside court, saying he knew all along he had done nothing wrong.
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.”
Daniel and Amy McArthur, who have said the law risked “extinguishing” their consciences, were in court for the ruling.
Lee was also present for the latest ruling in a case that 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 the owners were being forced to act against their religious beliefs.
David Scoffield QC, for Ashers, argued 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 disagreed as a matter of religious conscience.
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 it never had an issue with Lee’s sexuality, rather the message he was seeking to put on the cake.
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 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 Prime Minister Theresa May’s DUP allies staunch opponents of changing the law.
Reaction: Who is saying what about the ruling?
Gay rights activist Gareth Lee, who had his request for a cake with a support for same-sex marriage refused by the bakery, 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.”
Outside court, Ashers general manager Daniel McArthur said: “I want to start by thanking God. He has been with us during the challenges of the last four years. Through the Bible and the support of Christians, He has comforted us and sustained us. He is our rock and all His ways are just.
“We’re delighted and relieved at today’s ruling. We always knew we hadn’t done anything wrong in turning down this order. After more than four years, the Supreme Court has now recognised that and we’re very grateful. 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.
“The judges have given a clear signal today. In fact it couldn’t be any clearer. Family businesses like ours are free to focus on giving all their customers the best service they can – without being forced to promote other people’s campaigns.
“I know a lot of people will be glad to hear this ruling today, because this ruling protects freedom of speech and freedom of conscience for everyone.
“On behalf of my family can I say thank you to everyone who has supported us or prayed for us through all this.
“We want to move on from this now, and I’m sure Mr Lee does as well. And let me finish by saying that he will always be welcome at any of our shops.”
DUP leader Arlene Foster said the judgment was “historic and seminal”.
She tweeted: “This has been a long journey for everyone involved in the case. I commend Amy & Daniel McArthur for their grace and perseverance. This now provides clarity for people of all faiths and none.”
The Rainbow Project
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.
“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’.”
– © The Daily Telegraph