Do religious beliefs outweigh the law against discrimination in the supply of goods and services on grounds of sexual orientation?
A bakery in Northern Ireland has lost an appeal to overturn a conviction that found it guilty of discrimination for refusing to bake a pro-gay marriage themed cake.
The Court of Appeal in Belfast upheld a previous judgment from 2015 that Ashers Bakery, owned by two devout Christians who believe that gay marriage is sinful, discriminated against a man on the grounds of sexual orientation contrary to the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2006 by refusing to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan on it. The bakery was also ordered to pay £500 in damages.
The customer, Gareth Lee, had tried to buy a cake depicting the Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie with the caption ‘Support Gay Marriage’ for an event to mark International Day Against Homophobia in 2014. The owners of the bakery, Mr and Mrs McArthur, accepted that they cancelled the order because of their beliefs in relation to gay marriage.
In delivering the judgment, the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal rejected the bakery’s argument that it would have been endorsing gay marriage equality by baking the cake. It held that the couple’s own right to free speech was not being infringed.
The court held that one could not reasonably conclude that by icing a cake, personal support for the slogan is being expressed. The bakery owners were entitled to refuse to provide a service that involves any religious or political message, but they were not allowed to refuse to decorate cakes which carried a particular religious or political message just because it conflicted with their own views in relation to sexual orientation.
Northern Ireland has not implemented the Equality Act 2010 and, therefore, there is some disparity between equality law protection in England and Wales and Northern Ireland. It remains to be seen how this judgment will affect discrimination cases brought in England and Wales and indeed in Northern Ireland on the grounds of the other protected characteristics.
What it does show is the continued ‘clash of rights’ that pervades society and how the legal system tries to balance those.
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