Ashers Bakery Briefing
In the lead up to the UK Supreme Court hearing the Ashers case, we have prepared a brief with all the key facts.
Ashers Bakery will be back in Court when the UK Supreme Court will sit in Belfast for the first time to hear arguments in relation to what has become known as Belfast’s ‘Gay Cake’ case.
The case will be heard on Tuesday 1 May and Wednesday 2 May 2018 and the outcome of the hearing will have important implications for religious freedom. Interestingly, a very similar case, known as the Masterpiece Cakeshop, is before the US Supreme Court.
Ashers Baking Company is a Christian bakery owned by Colin and Karen McArthur. The bakery name is taken from the Bible - Asher was a tribe of Israel who had many skilled bakers, and created bread fit for a king. Ashers Bakery, and the McArthur family, found themselves in both the local and international spotlight when they refused to produce a cake promoting same-sex marriage.
In May 2014, Gareth Lee, a gay LGBT volunteer activist, placed an order with Ashers for a cake to be decorated with the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage.’ He also wanted the logo of the organisation QueerSpace to be printed on the cake, alongside a photo of Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie. The cake was to be created to mark the end of NI’s anti-homophobia week. Mrs McArthur took the order and issued a receipt.
A few days later, following discussions with her husband Colin, Karen McArthur phoned Mr Lee to kindly explain that the order could not be fulfilled, as Ashers are a Christian business, and that in hindsight she should not have taken the order. She apologised, and issued him a refund.
The McArthur family decided that they could not produce a cake promoting same-sex marriage, which is contrary to God’s word; the Bible clearly defines marriage as being solely between a man and a woman. Producing the cake would have conflicted with their deeply held religious beliefs. Their refusal to promote same-sex marriage was on conscience grounds and in no way related to Mr Lee’s sexual orientation. The McArthur family did not know the sexual orientation of Mr Lee when they refused to make the cake, and they would not have made the cake for anyone, gay or straight.
Mr Lee subsequently complained to the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI). It is important to note that the Equality Commission is in favour of introducing same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. The Commission said the bakery, in declining to bake the cake, had breached the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2006 which prohibits “discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services…on the grounds of sexual orientation.”
The Equality Commission issued a letter to Ashers in June 2014 claiming that the bakery had acted unlawfully by refusing to bake the cake, and ordered the bakery to ‘remedy’ it’s ‘unlawful discrimination’ within seven days or be taken to court. The McArthurs were also alleged to have breached political and religious discrimination laws.
Legal action commenced against Ashers and the case was initially heard in March 2015. In May 2015, the Court found that Ashers Baking Company had breached equality laws and had directly discriminated against Gareth Lee on the grounds of sexual orientation, religion and politics. Ashers were ordered to pay £500 damages to Mr Lee.
As Peter Lynas remarked in relation to the judgement,
“Ashers discriminated against an idea, not a person. While the law rightly prohibits the latter, the former is not only allowed, but encouraged in a healthy democratic society. Many people don't realise that Mr Lee had used the bakery before, and the company was, and remains, happy to serve him. However, they will not, and should not, be forced to promote a view contrary to their firmly-held religious beliefs.”
Ashers appealed the decision, and the case was heard by the Court of Appeal in May 2016, but the Court upheld the previous ruling. Ashers have since taken the appeal further, and it has now reached the UK Supreme Court.
Why is this case so important?
The precedent which this case sets is important in protecting the right to conscientiously object on religious grounds.
Ashers were being asked to promote something which is against their deeply held religious beliefs. To date, the Courts have ruled that Ashers, by consciously objecting to producing something which goes against their religious beliefs - have discriminated against Mr Lee. Not just on the grounds of sexual orientation, but also on political and religious grounds.
Ashers by law, cannot and should not be forced to make something which goes against what they believe.
When religious freedom is eroded, this not only affects Christians - it effects and erodes religious freedom for people of all religions.
During the course of the high-profile court case, Peter Tatchell, a prominent gay activist, voiced his support for Ashers. He pointed out that although he wishes to defend the gay community,
“It is an infringement of freedom to require businesses to aid the promotion of ideas to which they conscientiously object.”
The Christian Institute also points out,
“If Ashers loses on compelled speech, everyone loses.”
This case has helpfully opened up a debate about what a free and fair society should look like. It is not primarily about discrimination. Instead, it shows how a desire for tolerance can lead to intolerance. It highlights the dangers of compelling speech. It limits the ability to conscientiously object. Finally, it endangers the role of faith in the public square.
Whilst this cake does not have ‘Support Gay Marriage’ written on it, it does have ‘religious freedom’ iced all over it.