The Gay Cake row, also known as the Lee v Ashers Baking Company case, is a Supreme Court case involving LGBTQ+ rights activist Gareth Lee and a bakery, Ashers Baking Company, based in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
The case has been ongoing since 2014 and has recently seen some developments. This article will explore all of the facts surrounding the case, how it led to a high-profile row, and what these new developments mean for the future of the case.
Where did the event first occur?
The Gay Cake row began in 2014, when Gareth Lee, an LGBTQ+ rights activist, ordered a cake from the Ashers Baking Company in Belfast, Northern Ireland. At the time, same-sex marriage was banned in Northern Ireland and only legalised in 2020. Mr Lee was looking to have a cake made to celebrate National Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
He had requested that the cake have a picture of Bert and Ernie, from Sesame Street, with the slogan, "Support Gay Marriage", imprinted across the top. The bakery took Mr Lee's order and payment but referred the order to the managers shortly after.
A few days later, Mr Lee received a phone call indicating that the bakery would not complete his order due to their religious stance on gay marriage. The bakery also stated that they found the requested phrase offensive and were not obliged to fulfil the order because of this.
Feeling discriminated against, Mr Lee then launched a complaint to the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and was later awarded £500 in damages. The judge in the case argued that the Ashers Baking Company was operating as a business rather than a religious group and should be held liable for discrimination against Mr Lee based on his sexual orientation.
What happened after?
After Mr Lee was awarded compensation, Daniel and Amy McArthur, the owners of Ashers Baking Company, appealed the decision in 2016, noting that the cake would have infringed on their Christian beliefs. They were supported by the Christian Institute, which agreed that they should not be forced to fulfil an order with a message that they disagreed with.
The McArthurs failed to win their appeal, with the judge noting that the business could not only provide services to people it deemed to align with their Christian beliefs. Shortly after losing their appeal, the McArthurs decided to take the case to the Supreme Court.
They insisted that they weren't fulfilling Mr Lee's order because of his sexuality but rather the message that he had requested on the cake.
Once the case reached the Supreme Court in 2018, the judges unanimously ruled in favour of the McArthurs, arguing that rejecting Mr Lee's order was not discriminatory. This decision then reversed previous rulings made in favour of Lee. The judges also noted that the owners would have likely refused such an order from any customer, regardless of their sexual orientation. Lee said the decision made him feel like a "second class citizen".
Not long after winning their Supreme Court appeal, the McArthurs decided to close the shop at the centre of the controversy, claiming that it wasn't as busy as their other locations.
Why has it now been taken to the EU Human rights court?
After losing the case in the Supreme Court, Lee then decided to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights. He continued to argue that his case wasn't about religious views but the business's ability to choose the customers they serve selectively. And in this case, customers that aligned with their religious beliefs.
He also believed that, as a business, the McArthurs should keep their religious views separate from their business endeavours.
However, in January 2022, the European Court of Human Rights rejected the case, noting that the applicant, Mr Lee, hadn't invoked his rights under the Convention and only relied on UK domestic law during the initial proceedings.
What were the reactions to the decision?
When the case was first brought into the spotlight, there was a lot of support from both sides for Mr Lee and the McArthurs.
For example, in 2015, people rallied outside of the Belfast City Hall to protest the passing of a clause bill that would have made it legal for businesses to reject services if they went against their religious beliefs.
After the European Court's judgment, reactions came from LGBTQ+ rights groups and allies, including Nancy Kelley, the CEO of Stonewall. Kelly said the decision to throw out the case was a step backwards for LGBTQ+ equality.
John O'Doherty, from the Rainbow Project, also expressed disappointment in the decision, noting that it leaves a lot of ambiguity on the rights and protection that LGBTQ+ people have when accessing certain services.
On the other hand, the Christian Institute welcomed the decision by stating that it was a positive step in protecting free speech. Similarly, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, also praised the decision, saying it was a victory for freedom of expression.
What happens next?
After having the case deemed inadmissible by the Court and spending over seven years fighting the case, Lee and his Solicitor issued a statement indicating their disappointment in the verdict.
They're now deciding whether to launch a new case domestically and raise further awareness of the initial claim's issues.
Mr Lee and his legal team continue to argue that this case was always about separating the owners' religious beliefs from a business entity to avoid discrimination when attempting to order a cake.
Edited by Christophe Locatelli