The Supreme Court in the United Kingdom has ruled in favor of a bakery that refused a customer’s request for a cake with a message promoting same-sex marriage.
Overturning a lower court’s ruling of discrimination, the high court determined in a 5-0 ruling that Ashers Backing Co. rejected the message, which it has a right to do, not the messenger.
As in the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the recent Masterpiece Cakeshop case, the U.K. court said the bakery legitimately rejected the request because of a “religious objection to gay marriage.”
“To the extent that the district judge held that the bakery had discriminated unlawfully because of its owners’ religious beliefs she was wrong to do so,” the court said.
“Less favorable treatment was afforded to the message not to the man,” and it specified that “obliging a person to manifest a belief which he does not hold has been held to be a limitation on his article 9(1) rights.”
The judges the “freedom not to be obliged to hold or to manifest beliefs that one does not hold is also protected by article 10 of the Convention.”
“Nobody should be forced to have or express a political opinion in which he does not believe.”
Ashers appealed to the Supreme Court in May after a lower court in 2015 ruled the bakery had violated anti-discrimination laws that protect people on the basis of sexual orientation.
Belfast County Court had ruled against Ashers, run by a Christian family, the McArthurs, for declining an order to make a $50 cake with the campaign slogan “Support Gay Marriage” for a gay rights event because it conflicted with their deeply held religious beliefs.
The Court of Appeal in Belfast upheld that decision in 2016.
The Christian Institute worked on behalf of the family.
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 recognized 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 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.”
The judges, he said, found that the “objection was to the message and not to any particular person or persons.”
Christian Institute Deputy Director for Public Affairs Simon Calvert said: “We are delighted at this common-sense ruling. It’s a total vindication of Ashers Baking Company and the McArthur family. The United Kingdom has a long and proud tradition of free speech and today’s ruling is a resounding reassertion of that tradition.
“They have strongly underlined the law on compelled speech, quoting a previous case which said ‘Nobody should be forced to have or express a political opinion in which he does not believe’,” he said.
“The court recognized that this case was about declining to support a particular message, not declining to serve a particular customer.”
It was in May 2014 that Ashers declined an order placed at its Belfast store by a gay rights activist who wanted images of Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie campaigning for gay marriage.
The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, a tax-funded organization, funded and directed the attack on the bakery.
The institute said the comprehensive ruling upholds free speech and prevents the law forcing businesses to express views with which they profoundly disagree. The ruling is significant, the institute said, not only for Northern Ireland but for the whole United Kingdom.
It was activist Gareth Lee who demanded the gay-themed cake.
The attorney general for Northern Ireland, John Larkin, argued in court on behalf of the bakery.
Larkin asserted Ashers’ owners have the right to reject a request to put a pro-homosexual message on a cake under the nation’s freedom of speech laws as well as the European Convention on Human Rights.
A lower court judge, Isobel Brownlie, had found that Ashers had broken discrimination laws by refusing to prepare the cake.
Larkin intervened in the case to present arguments on behalf of the Christian bakers.
“No one should be forced to be the mouthpiece for someone else’s views when they are opposed to their own – whether in print or in icing sugar,” he said at the time.
He said the “issue of political and religious discrimination is direct” and the ramifications are “potentially enormous.”
“Much as I wish to defend the gay community, I also want to defend freedom of conscience, expression and religion,” he wrote.
“It pains me to say this, as a long-time supporter of the struggle for LGBT equality in Northern Ireland, where same-sex marriage and gay blood donors remain banned. The equality laws are intended to protect people against discrimination. A business providing a public service has a legal duty to do so without discrimination based on race, gender, faith and sexuality.
“However, the court erred by ruling that Lee was discriminated against because of his sexual orientation and political opinions. … His cake request was refused not because he was gay, but because of the message he asked for. There is no evidence that his sexuality was the reason Ashers declined his order,” he wrote.