The highest court in the United Kingdom has ruled in favor of a bakery that refused to bake a cake that displayed a pro-marriage equality message.
The U.K. Supreme Court Wednesday reversed lower court rulings that had found Ashers Baking Co., based in Northern Ireland, had discriminated against Gareth Lee for being gay when it refused his order for a cake decorated with Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie plus the words "support gay marriage."
“The bakers could not refuse to supply their goods to Mr. Lee because he is a gay man, but that is quite different from obliging them to supply a cake iced with a message with which they profoundly disagreed," the panel of five judges wrote, according to the U.K.'s Pink News.
“All I wanted was to order a cake in a shop that made cakes to order,” Lee told reporters after the ruling was announced. “I paid my money, my money was taken, and a few days later my order was refused based upon the beliefs of the business owners that made me feel like a second-class citizen.”
Lee ordered the cake from Ashers in May 2014 to bring to an event advocating for marriage equality in Northern Ireland, the only part of the U.K. that still has a same-sex marriage ban. The McArthur family, owners of the bakery, refused to prepare the cake because they didn't want to endorse marriage equality, as it goes against their religious beliefs. Since then, the fight over a £36.50 ($48) cake became an over $500,000 legal battle, The Wall Street Journal notes, referring to the fees paid by each side.
Lee first sued the bakery in 2015, claiming it violated Northern Ireland’s Equality Act and another antidiscirmination statute. In 2016, a Northern Ireland court found that Ashers had violated these laws, a decision that was overturned Wednesday.
The U.K. Supreme Court justices cited the bakery owners' "right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion" as a justification for them to refuse to create the cake.
The ruling has both similarities to and differences from the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. That ruling involved a baker who refused to create a wedding cake for a gay couple. The high court ruled that the civil rights commission, which found that the bakery violated the state's antidiscrimination law, did not show sufficient respect for the owner's religious beliefs, and therefore the court vacated that finding. But it did not establish an overall right to discriminate.
In the U.K., the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland issued a statement warning that the British court's ruling could mean “the beliefs of business owners may take precedence over a customer’s equality rights, which in our view is contrary to what the legislature intended.” Lee had the backing of the Equality Commission, a taxpayer-funded group, while the McArthurs had the help of an evangelical group, the Christian Institute.
LGBTQ activists objected to the ruling as well. “We are disappointed by this judgment," John O’Doherty, director of Northern Ireland’s Rainbow Project, told Pink News. “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,” he continued.
A spokesperson for Stonewall, a U.K. LGBTQ advocacy organization, agreed that the decision was a poor one.
“The Supreme Court’s decision that Ashers bakery were not discriminatory in the so-called ‘gay cake’ row is very concerning for anyone who cares about equality. We will take time to review the judgment in detail," the group wrote in a statement to PinkNews. “It is illegal for providers of goods, facilities and services in the UK to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation and/or gender reassignment."
At least one other LGBTQ activist saw the decision differently. “This verdict is a victory for freedom of expression," gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said in a statement to Pink News. “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,“ he added. “This includes the right to refuse messages that are sexist, xenophobic or anti-gay, which is a good thing."
“Discrimination against LGBT people is wrong. But in a free society, people should be able to discriminate against ideas that they disagree with. I am glad the court upheld this important liberal principle," Tatchell concluded.
O'Doherty did not agree with his perspective. “We believe this is direct discrimination for which there can be no justification," the organizer asserted.