Britain’s Supreme Court says a bakery owned by a Christian family didn’t discriminate against a gay customer when it refused to make a. Ashers Baking Co. in Northern Ireland refused in 2014 to make a cake iced with the Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie bearing the slogan “Support Gay Marriage.” The owners argued they couldn’t put messages on their products at odds with their Christian beliefs.
In a unanimous ruling, five judges overturned a series of decisions by the lower courts to conclude that “nobody should be forced to have or express a political opinion in which he does not believe.”
In its ruling, the court cited the U.S. Supreme Court case, Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in which the owner of the Colorado-based Masterpiece Cakeshop refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding.
“The important message from the Masterpiece Bakery case is that there is a clear distinction between refusing to produce a cake conveying a particular message, for any customer who wants such a cake, and refusing to produce a cake for the particular customer who wants it because of that customer’s characteristics,” the opinion reads.
“One can debate which side of the line particular factual scenarios fall. But in our case there can be no doubt,” Hale wrote. “The bakery would have refused to supply this particular cake to anyone, whatever their personal characteristics.”
The decision settles a case brought by Gareth Lee of the LGBT group QueerSpace in June 2014 against Ashers bakers, which is based in Northern Ireland, the only part of the U.K. in which same-sex marriage is illegal
“This conclusion is not in any way to diminish the need to protect gay people and people who support gay marriage from discrimination,” Hale added.
“The less favourable treatment was afforded to the message not to the man. It was not as if he were being refused a job, or accommodation, or baked goods in general, because of his political opinion. The evidence was that they were quite prepared to serve him in other ways.”
The court said the situation was more akin to a Christian printing business being required to print leaflets promoting an atheist message.
The bakery owners appealed to the Supreme Court after lower courts ruled the refusal of service was discriminatory. The case was the first ever case to be heard in Northern Ireland by Britain’s Supreme Court.
Speaking earlier in the case, David Scoffield, lawyer for the bakery’s owners, said that the family should not be compelled to create a product “to which they have a genuine objection in conscience.”
The customer, Gareth Lee, told the BBC that he felt the ruling had “implications for all of the gay community.” “In Northern Ireland, I’m a second class citizen and that’s unfortunate. We don’t have the same rights in Northern Ireland as gay people as we do in the rest of the United Kingdom,” he said.
“To me, this was never about conscience or a statement. All I wanted to do was to order a cake in a shop,” he added.
He said “I think this has consequences for everyone. Anyone can walk into a shop – you shouldn’t have to work out if you’re going to be served based on their religious beliefs. I am confused.
There have been protests staged by both sides. Earlier this year, more than 2,000 people gathered in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to support Ashers Bakery Co. In January, over 1,000 people protested the introduction of a “conscience clause” into Northern Irish equality law, aimed at creating legal exemption for strongly held religious beliefs.
The province’s Equality Commission, which backed Lee’s case, said it was disappointed with the judgment and the implications that the beliefs of business owners may take precedence over a customer’s equality rights.
But the ruling was hailed by the socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the province’s largest party that props up Britain’s minority government and has blocked attempts to legalise gay marriage in the province.
“The Ashers ruling is an historic and seminal judgment. This now provides clarity for people of all faiths and none,” DUP leader Arlene Foster said on Twitter.
Daniel and Amy McArthur, the owners of the bakery, also issued a statement outside the court, saying they were “grateful to the judges and especially grateful to God.”
“We did not turn down this order because of the person who made it, but because of the message itself,” said McArthur, an evangelical Christian.
“I know a lot of people will be glad to hear this ruling today, because this ruling protects freedom of speech and freedom of conscience for everyone,” he said, adding: “We want to move on from this now, and I’m sure Mr. Lee does too. … Let me just finish by saying that he will always be welcome at any of our shops.”