Landmark free speech victory, equality law does not compel people so say something with which they profoundly disagree
- Supreme Court agrees it was about ‘the message not the messenger’
- Unanimous decision: 5-0 in favour of Ashers Baking Co
- Equality law does not compel people to say something with which they profoundly disagree
- Bakery owners, the McArthur family, “delighted”
- Court says: “There was no discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in this case.”
- There was no discrimination on grounds of religious belief or political opinion
- Judgment: “The objection was to being required to promote the message on the cake. The less favourable treatment was afforded to the message not to the man.”
The bakery owners at the centre of the controversial ‘gay cake’ case have spoken of their delight as the highest court in the land cleared them of discrimination.
After a protracted and costly legal action, the case brought by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI) has been comprehensively rejected.
Ashers Baking Company went before the Supreme Court in May in a bid to overturn a 2015 judgment that it had broken political, religious and sexual orientation discrimination laws.
Belfast County Court ruled against Ashers, run by Christian family the McArthurs, for declining an order to make a £36.50 cake with the campaign slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’ for a gay rights event because it conflicted with their deeply-held religious beliefs.
The Court of Appeal in Belfast upheld that decision in 2016.
Pursued since 2014 by the taxpayer-funded Equality Commission, Ashers mounted a vigorous defence, supported by The Christian Institute.
After the five Supreme Court judges unanimously upheld the appeal, Ashers’ General Manager Daniel McArthur spoke to gathered media on the steps of the court:
“I want to start by thanking God. He has been with us during the challenges of the last four years. Through the Bible and the support of Christians, He has comforted us and sustained us. He is our rock and all His ways are just.
“We’re delighted and relieved at today’s ruling. We always knew we hadn’t done anything wrong in turning down this order. After more than four years, the Supreme Court has now recognised that and we’re very grateful. Grateful to the judges and especially grateful to God.
“We’re particularly pleased the Supreme Court emphatically accepted what we’ve said all along – we did not turn down this order because of the person who made it, but because of the message itself.
“The judges have given a clear signal today. In fact it couldn’t be any clearer. Family businesses like ours are free to focus on giving all their customers the best service they can – without being forced to promote other people’s campaigns.
“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.
“On behalf of my family can I say thank you to everyone who has supported us or prayed for us through all this.
“I do want to take this opportunity to thank our whole legal team for working so hard for us over the last four years. And also to thank the entire Christian Institute staff for their help and support from the very beginning.
“We want to move on from this now, and I’m sure Mr Lee does too. And let me just finish by saying that he will always be welcome at any of our shops.
EXTRACTS FROM TODAY’S SUPREME COURT RULING:
- “…the substantive questions raised are undoubtedly of general public importance, not only in Northern Ireland but also in the rest of the United Kingdom.”
- “In a nutshell, the objection was to the message and not to any particular person or persons.”
- “The objection was not to Mr Lee… The objection was to being required to promote the message on the cake. The less favourable treatment was afforded to the message not to the man.”
- “…obliging a person to manifest a belief which he does not hold has been held to be a limitation on his article 9(1) rights [freedom of religion or belief]” “The freedom not to be obliged to hold or manifest beliefs that one does not hold is also protected by article 10 of the Convention [freedom of expression].”
- “…the bakery was required on pain of liability in damages, to supply a product which actively promoted the cause, a cause in which many believe, but a cause in which the owners most definitely and sincerely did not…by being required to produce the cake they were being required to express a message with which they deeply disagreed.”
- “The bakery would have refused to supply this particular cake to anyone, whatever their personal characteristics. So there was no discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. If and to the extent that there was discrimination on grounds of political opinion, no justification has been shown for the compelled speech which would be entailed for imposing civil liability for refusing to fulfil the order.”
Ashers was supported by The Christian Institute which funded their defence.
The Institute’s Deputy Director for Public Affairs, Simon Calvert said:
“We are delighted at this common-sense ruling. It’s a total vindication of Ashers Baking Company and the McArthur family. The United Kingdom has a long and proud tradition of free speech and today’s ruling is a resounding reassertion of that tradition.
“They have strongly underlined the law on compelled speech, quoting a previous case which said ‘Nobody should be forced to have or express a political opinion in which he does not believe’.
“The Court recognised that this case was about declining to support a particular message, not declining to serve a particular customer.
“The Court strongly agreed with Ashers’ lawyers that this case has always been about the message on the cake and not the customer; the message, not the messenger.
“Ashers is now free to go back to doing what it does best – serving all its customers, from every walk of life.
“Because of today’s ruling Muslim printers cannot be forced to print cartoons of Mohammed. Lesbian t-shirt firms can refuse to produce t-shirts calling gay marriage ‘an abomination’. Freedom of speech and freedom of conscience are both protected by this ruling.
“Equality law was never intended to be used in the way the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland tried to use it in this case.
“Concerns about the Equality Commission’s impartiality were expressed by the Court of Appeal and now the Supreme Court has done the same. Serious questions need to be asked about their role in all of this.”
The case followed a decision in May 2014 by Ashers to decline an order placed at its Belfast store by a gay rights activist asking for a £36.50 cake featuring the Sesame Street puppets, Bert and Ernie, with the campaign slogan, ‘Support Gay Marriage’.
The customer also wanted the cake to feature the logo of a Belfast-based campaign group QueerSpace.
Ashers, owned by Daniel’s parents Colin and Karen McArthur, refused to make the cake because it carried a message contrary to the family’s firmly-held Christian beliefs.
But the ECNI launched a civil action against the family-run bakery, claiming its actions violate equality laws in Northern Ireland and alleging discrimination under two anti-discrimination statutes – The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (NI) 2006 and FETO, The Fair Employment and Treatment (NI) Order 1998.
The case raised key issues of public importance regarding the protection of rights to freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
Mr Calvert of The Christian Institute added:
“This is a ruling with implications far beyond one little bakery in Belfast.
“The UK’s most senior judges have made a clear, comprehensive and positive ruling in favour of freedom of speech and freedom of conscience for all business owners.
“Equality laws are there to protect people from discrimination, not to force people to promote causes they oppose.
“We are delighted that today the Court has strongly endorsed that view.
“It is a judgment that will be welcomed by all who value freedom of conscience and freedom of speech.
“On behalf of The Christian Institute and the McArthur family I’d like to say a big ‘thank you’ to the thousands upon thousands of people who have shown their support for Ashers.
“And I would like to pay tribute to the McArthur family and the gentle and respectful way they have conducted themselves throughout this process.
“They have a peace that comes from trusting in God whatever the outcome and it has been a privilege for all of us at The Christian Institute to stand with them.”
- The case follows a decision in 2014 by Ashers to decline an order placed at its Belfast store by a gay rights activist asking for a £36.50 cake featuring the Sesame Street puppets, Bert and Ernie, with the campaign slogan, ‘Support Gay Marriage’. The cake was for a campaign event calling for same-sex marriage to be introduced in Northern Ireland.
- The customer also wanted the cake to feature the logo of a Belfast-based campaign group called QueerSpace. Ashers refused to make the cake because it carried a message contrary to the firmly-held Christian beliefs of the owners.
- Ashers Baking Company is being assisted by The Christian Institute, a non-denominational national charity which since 1991 has been working on issues including religious liberty, marriage and the family.
- Ashers Baking Company Limited was set up in 1992 by Colin and Karen McArthur, who are the owners and directors.
- The McArthurs’ son, Daniel, is the company’s General Manager. All three are Christians. They have previously refused other cake printing orders which included pornographic pictures and offensive language, since they clearly conflicted with the teachings of their Christian faith.
- The legal action against Ashers Baking Company is being funded by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland – a taxpayer-funded public body with an annual budget of over £5 million.
- The ECNI claimed the company’s actions violated equality laws in Northern Ireland and alleged discrimination under two anti-discrimination statutes – The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (NI) 2006 and The Fair Employment and Treatment (NI) Order 1998. These claims have now been comprehensively rejected by the Supreme Court.
- The ECNI website states: “The Commission supports the introduction of legislation permitting same sex marriage including sufficient safeguards for religious organisations”.
- The Northern Ireland Assembly has rejected five attempts to redefine marriage since October 2012.