Case note: Lee v. Ashers Baking Company Ltd and others [2018] UKSC 49

The Supreme Court in London has allowed an appeal by a local bakery who refused to decorate a cake with a political slogan contrary to their religious beliefs.

The bakery had offered a ‘build-a-cake’ service to customers. In May 2014, a customer, who was a gay man and campaigner, ordered a cake for an event in support of marriage equality and requested that it be decorated with an image of ‘Bert and Ernie’ with the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’.

The owners of the bakery, whose name for the business derives from a biblical reference, hold religious beliefs which would be contrary to the
slogan.  Although the bakery had initially accepted the order, they subsequently cancelled it on this basis.  

The customer, with the support of the Equality Commission, subsequently brought a claim against the bakery and its owners alleging direct and direct discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation contrary to the Equality Act
(Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006
and/or on grounds of religious belief or political opinion, contrary to the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998.

At first instance, the Presiding District Judge found the bakery’s refusal to complete the order was direct discrimination on all three grounds. The Court of Appeal dismissed the bakery’s appeal.

The Supreme Court, however, allowed the bakery’s appeal with the President of the Supreme Court, Lady Hale, giving judgement on the
discrimination issues and concluding that the bakery did not refuse the
customer’s order because of his actual or perceived sexual orientation. It was held that the bakery’s objection was to ‘…the message on the cake, not any personal characteristics of the messenger, or anyone with whom he was associated.’

It should be noted that the judgement of the Supreme Court, rather than endorsing discrimination of any kind, contained a tacit endorsement of marriage equality and ‘…the social benefits which such commitment can bring’.  

By Paul Sullivan FRSA

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