Megan Udinski, FISM News
In a legal battle that began in 2014, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) deemed the case of gay-activist Gareth Lee versus Christian-owned Ashers Baking inadmissible.
Mr. Lee had purchased a cake from the Belfast bakery location back in 2014 when, a few days later, the company called him saying they would issue him a full refund because they could not make the cake as it would go against their religious beliefs. He wanted a cake picturing Bert and Ernie, the Sesame Street characters, with the slogan “Support Gay Marriage.” At this time, same-sex marriage was still illegal in Northern Ireland and that did not change until October 2019.
After receiving the company’s change of heart, Mr. Lee went to the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, who took his case believing it to be a discrimination case, and reported feeling “unworthy” and like a “lesser person.” His main arguments were discrimination based on sexual orientation and political beliefs.
Mr. Lee had won his original case in the U.K. county court as well as a court of appeals, but in 2018, when the bakery appealed to the U.K. Supreme Court, the five judges unanimously decided in favor of the bakery, saying the company’s decision to refuse to make the cake was not discriminatory. Owners of Ashers Baking have continued to insist they were not refusing to serve the customer based on sexual orientation but that the message on the cake would contradict their Christian beliefs. In fact, they have served the individual before and would do so again.
After the decision in favor of Ashers Baking, Mr. Lee took the case to the ECHR. Phoenix Law, representing Gareth Lee’s case, argued that “there is no such a thing as a ‘Christian business,’” claiming no one would associate the cake made in a private transaction would represent the beliefs of the company and that the Supreme Court’s decision sets a negative precedent that the company’s rights trump the customer’s rights.
Lee commented that, “I’d fight for the rights of business owners to be able to hold their own religious beliefs. I have my own beliefs. But that’s not what my case has ever been about.” While it may not be about that for Mr. Lee, that is what it has been about for Asher’s Baking – their freedom to stand by their Christian beliefs.
In their ruling on Thursday, the majority of the seven judges who heard the case decided, “Because he had failed to exhaust domestic remedies, the application was inadmissible.”
The court’s decision has been met with different responses from the religious freedom groups compared to the gay-activist groups.
Simon Calvert from the Christian Institute, who had supported the family’s baking company, expressed that although the “UK Supreme Court engaged at length with the human rights arguments in this case and upheld the McArthurs’ rights to freedom of expression and religion, it was disappointing to see another attempt to undermine those rights, so it is a relief that the attempt has failed.” He is overjoyed in the decision to uphold religious freedom and freedom of speech.
On the flip side, John O’Doherty from the Rainbow Project showed frustration, saying they affirm the “fundamental belief in freedom of religion for all people; however, this freedom cannot be extrapolated into privately-owned business and used as a justification for discrimination.” Phoenix Law agreed with the Project and challenged that the decision made by the Court would create ambiguity in the law to support LBGT individuals’ rights.
Conversely, Peter Tatchell who is a huge proponent of LGBT rights and disagrees with the Ashers’ personal feelings to oppose same-sex marriage, explained that, feelings aside, he “did not believe Ashers had discriminated against him.” To put it in perspective, “If the judgement had gone the other way, a gay baker could have been forced by law to accede to requests to decorate cakes with messages opposing LGBT+ equality.”