In a judgment handed down today by a County Court sitting in Belfast, Ashers bakery was found liable for discriminating against a customer when it refused to fulfil his order of making a cake which was iced with the slogan “Support Gay Marriage”.
Cloisters’ Robin Allen QC acted for the customer (the plaintiff) in this significant ruling which will have wide-reaching implications.
The customer, Mr Lee, is a gay man and is involved with a volunteer organisation called QueerSpace, supporting LGBT rights in Northern Ireland. He has a genuine and deeply-held belief that gay people should be entitled to marry. He placed an order with Ashers bakery for a cake which was iced with a slogan “Support Gay Marriage” and the logo for QueerSpace. The order was originally accepted, but subsequently the bakery owners refused to fulfil the order and returned his money, stating that to make the cake would offend their deeply-held Christian beliefs.
The two owners describe themselves as Evangelical Christians and gave evidence that they held a sincere and deep belief that marriage is a union only for man and woman and that sexual relations outside of that bond of heterosexual marriage is contrary to the Bible.
In the proceedings, they argued that they had not refused the order because of Mr Lee’s own sexual orientation, but because of the slogan on the cake which supported a belief that was inconsistent with their religious beliefs. They testified that they would have refused to make the cake if a heterosexual customer had placed the same order and that they did not even know Mr Lee was gay. They also argued that it would breach their rights under article 9 ECHR (freedom to hold and manifest a religious belief) if the law required them to fulfil orders of this nature.
However, the County Court held that: “…the Defendants cancelled the order as they oppose same sex marriage…Same sex marriage is inextricably linked to sexual relations between same sex couples which is a union of persons having a particular sexual orientation.”
It went on to hold that because the bakery is not a religious organisation (merely a commercial one run by owners with religious beliefs) there were no exemptions to the prohibition on discrimination. Hence the owners were not permitted to discriminate against certain members of the public, even if the characteristics of the customers or their orders offend the owners’ religious beliefs. The Judge stated that to hold otherwise “…would be to allow a religious belief to dictate what the law is”
The Court further stated: “This is not a law which is for one belief only but is equal to and for all."
This case follows a line of authorities where religious beliefs have come into conflict with other protected rights, predominantly gay rights. For example, in late 2013, the UK Supreme Court found in favour of a gay couple who had been refused to take up their reservation at a Bed & Breakfast run by Christians (see Bull and another v Hall and another  UKSC 73).
Cases such as these show a trend in the number of cases coming to the courts on this issue and the protection being afforded to gay rights. For many, this robust recognition of gay rights has been long overdue. Other protected characteristics (race, gender etc.) have had effective legal protection for a much longer period and the law is only now starting to catch up in respect to gay rights.
However, for others, it may seem that forcing persons to act in a way incompatible with their religious or philosophical beliefs is not fair or just, even if they are providing services to the public.
In any event, today’s decision demonstrates that whilst the law protects a business owner’s right to hold a religious belief, it will intervene at the point at which such belief manifests itself in a discriminatory way towards others who are equally deserving of protection in a democratic society.
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