Ashers verdict: ‘To do otherwise would be to allow a religious belief to dictate what the law is’

1cakeThe County Court in Belfast has ruled that Ashers Baking Company and its directors discriminated against a gay customer, Gareth Lee, by refusing to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan.

The judgment was a resounding vindication of the Equality Commission (response here), which backed Mr Lee’s case. It became the latest in a long list of unsuccessful legal actions against LGBT rights taken or supported by lobby group, the Christian Institute (response here).

The case centred on the refusal of Ashers to fulfill an order, which they had previously accepted from Mr Lee, for a cake to mark Northern Ireland Anti-Homophobia Week, which carried the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’.

Judge Isobel Brownlie was able to draw on significant Northern Ireland, UK and international case law in reaching her verdict, which found that Ashers Baking Co discriminated against Mr Lee in breach of the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (NI) 2006 and the Fair Employment and Treatment Order 1998.

The decision was wholly unsurprising to anyone familiar with the relevant legislation and how that has been interpreted by the courts over recent years. Equally, it would be very surprising if any higher court were to come to any markedly different conclusion, should the company seek to and be given leave to appeal the judgment.

Judge Brownlie’s judgment is well worth reading in full (41 pages), for anyone interested in how the law balances the protection of the right to hold and manifest religious beliefs with the right not to suffer discrimination. This balance is not to the liking of some, such as the DUP and various Church groups who have backed their efforts to change the law to allow a so-called ‘conscience clause’, which would permit discrimination against members of the LGBT community by those with deeply held religious beliefs. Amnesty International, among others, has comprehensively rejected (PDF) those proposals in its response to a DUP-run consultation.

For those without the time or inclination to read the whole of the Lee v Ashers judgment, here are some key sections:

…I do not accept the Defendants submissions that what the Plaintiff wanted them to do would require them to promote and support gay marriage which is contrary to their religious beliefs. Much as I acknowledge fully their religious belief is that gay marriage is sinful, they are in a business supplying services to all, however constituted. The law requires them to do just that… (pg 12)

My finding is that the Defendants cancelled the order as they oppose same sex marriage for the reason that they regard it as sinful and contrary to their genuinely held beliefs. Same sex marriage is inextricably linked to sexual relations between same sex couples which is a union of persons having a particular sexual orientation. The Plaintiff did not share the particular religious and political opinion which confines marriage to heterosexual orientation.

The Defendants are not a religious organization; they are conducting a business for profit and, notwithstanding their genuine religious beliefs, there are no exceptions under the 2006 Regulations which apply to this case and the Legislature, after appropriate consultation and consideration, has determined what the law should be. (pg 15)

It is wrong that in fulfilling the order the Defendants would be promoting and supporting a change in the law of Northern Ireland so as to enable same sex marriage in that they were doing no more than obeying the law and providing the Plaintiff with a service. (pg 17)

I have found in this case that the 2nd and 3rd Defendants [the McArthurs] have a Christian belief that is genuinely and sincerely held and that they have a right to manifest their religion albeit limited by Article 9 (2) of the Convention.

‘The Convention seeks to balance the rights of the individuals against other public interests, but the object of human rights jurisprudence in democratic systems is not simple majoritarian rule. The rule of law is also required to ensure that democracy does not mean that the tyranny of the majority causes disproportionate interference with the rights of the minorities’ – Blackstone’s Guide to the Human Rights Act 1998 (pg 29)

The law in Northern Ireland prohibits the defendants from acting as they did and, in relation to the requirement to balance competing interests, I find that the extent to which the 2006 Regulations and/or the 1998 Order limit the manifestation of the Defendant’s religious beliefs, those limitations are necessary in a democratic society and are a proportionate means of achieving the legitimate aim which is the protection of the rights and freedoms of the Plaintiff… To do otherwise would be to allow a religious belief to dictate what the law is. That is a matter for the Assembly. (pg 37)

If the Plaintiff was a gay man who ran a bakery business and the Defendants as Christians wanted him to bake a cake with the words ‘support heterosexual marriage’ the Plaintiff would be required to do so as, otherwise; he would, according to the law be discriminating against the Defendants. This is not a law which is for one belief only but is equal to and for all. (pg38/39)

I am the Northern Ireland Programme Director of Amnesty International UK and an occasional human rights blogger at Amnesty Blogs: Belfast & Beyond.

I’m on Twitter at @PatrickCorrigan