A Northern Irish case, informally known as “the Gay Cake” case, hit headlines by highlighting the difficulties that can arise when religious beliefs clash with gay rights.
Gareth Lee, a gay rights campaigner, placed an order for a cake with Ashers Bakery in 2014 in order to mark International Day against Homophobia in 2014. The cake would have displayed a picture of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street and the words “Support Gay Marriage”. However, the owners of the bakery, the McArthur family, refused to undertake the order due to their Christian beliefs and their opinion that fulfilling the order would have been “sinful” and would have endorsed gay marriage. They refunded Mr Lee the money he had paid and he was able to obtain the cake from an alternative supplier.
The Northern Ireland Court of Appeal held that the bakery owners’ actions in cancelling the order, amounted to direct discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. It found that they would not have opposed to taking an order for a cake with the caption “supporting heterosexual marriage” and that the use of the word “gay” within the message was central to the owners’ refusal to complete the order.
The owners would, however, have been entitled to apply a blanket policy of not accepting orders with political statements or endorsing any religious beliefs. They were simply prevented from withholding services from a selection of customers based on prohibited grounds (such as sexual orientation).
Although the case was decided in Northern Ireland and deals with the supply of goods and services rather than employment, the issues are still very relevant and highlight the increasingly common tension between conflicting protected characteristics (so, in this case, between religious beliefs and sexual orientation). There have been numerous other similar cases:
• The Christian B&B owners who refused to allow gay couples to stay in a double room;
• The Registrar who brought a claim after she was disciplined due to her refusal, on the grounds of her Christian beliefs, to carry out civil partnership ceremonies; and
• The Christian counsellor who refused to counsel same sex couples.
The decisions in all of the cases reflected the courts’ view that Christian beliefs did not allow an establishment or an individual to discriminate against someone on the grounds of their sexual orientation.
These cases are interesting as there are arguments put forward by some to say that the decisions mean that gay rights are effectively outweighing religious beliefs, and that Christians should not be forced to do things that go against those beliefs. In a similar vein, there are arguments that the decisions go against a person’s freedom of expression and religious belief.
However, on the flip side, the cases are about businesses that operate in the public arena. Baking a cake with a particular message doesn’t mean that the business endorses that message or even agrees with it, and to allow them to pick and choose what messages they support goes against a tolerant society and can undermine those characteristics that have been deemed sufficiently important to warrant legal protection.
Interesting food for thought...