Britain’s highest court has ruled in favour of a Belfast bakery at the centre of a long-running legal stoush that’s been dubbed locally as the “gay cake” case.
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled the Christian owners of Ashers Baking co were not obliged by law to make a cake featuring the words “support gay marriage”.
The dispute began in 2014 when Gareth Lee, a gay rights activist who supports the campaign to legalise same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, placed his order.
After the bakery told him the cake would not be made, Mr Lee successfully sued for discrimination in Belfast. He also won a subsequent Court of Appeal ruling.
Ashers argued it had objected to the message on the cake only because it was “inconsistent” with the company’s religious views.
It claimed it would have refused the same order from a heterosexual client.
The president of the Supreme Court, Lady Hale, agreed with that argument and found the bakery did not refuse to fulfil the order because of Mr Lee’s sexual orientation.
“They would have refused to make a cake for any customer,” she said.
“Nobody should be forced to have or express a political opinion in which he does not believe.”
“This conclusion is not in any way to diminish the need to protect gay people and people who support gay marriage from discrimination.”
Outside court, the bakery’s general manager, Daniel McArthur, thanked God and declared the ruling a victory for free speech.
“The judges have given a clear signal today,” he said.
“Family businesses like ours are free to give customers the best service they can without being forced to promote other people’s campaigns.”
Australian gay rights campaigner pleased by decision
Mr Lee, who had his legal action backed by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, said he was concerned about what the ruling might mean for the gay community.
“This was never about conscience or a statement,” he said.
“All I wanted to do was to order a cake in a shop.”
Gay rights groups have voiced similar worries, but Australian-born human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell told the ABC he was very pleased by the decision.
“Let’s put things in reverse, I wouldn’t feel comfortable with a gay baker being forced by law to decorate a cake with a message against gay marriage,” he said.
“If this had been upheld, it could have potentially meant that a Muslim printer could have been obliged by law to publish a cartoon of Muhammad.
“This upholds a really important principle.”
The case has also attracted international attention.
In June, the US Supreme Court ruled in favour of a Colorado baker who cited religious reasons when refusing a request to make a cake for a gay couple.
The legal fees for the Northern Ireland case are estimated to be more than $800,000 combined.
The cake, which ended up being made at another bakery, would have cost about $66.