A Belfast bakery run by evangelical Christians was not obliged to make a cake emblazoned with the message “support gay marriage”, the supreme court has ruled, overturning a £500 damages award imposed on it.
The unanimous decision by the UK’s highest court was greeted as a victory for free speech but condemned by gay rights groups and the Equality Commission of Northern Ireland as a backward step in combating discrimination.
Ashers had refused to produce the cake, featuring the Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie, in 2014 for Gareth Lee, who supports the campaign to legalise same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. He wanted to take it to a private function marking International Day Against Homophobia.
The judgment, delivered after the supreme court’s first hearing in Northern Ireland in May, reverses earlier decisions in Belfast county court and a court of appeal ruling that the company discriminated against Lee, who is gay, on the grounds of sexual orientation.
The five justices on the supreme court – Lady Hale, Lord Mance, Lord Kerr, Lord Hodge and Lady Black – found the bakery did not refuse to fulfil Lee’s order because of his sexual orientation and therefore there was no discrimination on those grounds. The business relationship between Lee and Ashers did not involve people being refused jobs or services because of their religious faith, the judges added.
“It is deeply humiliating, and an affront to human dignity, to deny someone a service because of that person’s race, gender, disability, sexual orientation or any of the other protected personal characteristics,” Hale said in the judgment.
“But that is not what happened in this case and it does the project of equal treatment no favours to seek to extend it beyond its proper scope.”
Ashers bakery owners Daniel and Amy McArthur outside the supreme court after the ruling.
Ashers bakery owners Daniel and Amy McArthur outside the supreme court after the ruling. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA
Freedom of expression, as guaranteed by article 10 of the European convention on human rights, includes the right “not to express an opinion which one does not hold”, Hale added. “This court has held that nobody should be forced to have or express a political opinion in which he does not believe,” she said.
“The bakers could not refuse to supply their goods to Mr Lee because he was a gay man or supported gay marriage, but that is quite different from obliging them to supply a cake iced with a message with which they profoundly disagreed.”
The case has aroused international interest. The US supreme court reached a similar conclusion in another bakery case in June, when it ruled in favour of a Colorado baker who had refused to produce a wedding cake for a gay couple in 2012.
After the ruling, Lee said: “I’m very confused about what this actually means. We need certainty when you go to a business. I’m concerned that this has implications for myself and for every single person.”
The original decision to turn down his order had left him feeling like a “second-class citizen”, he said.
Lee said he would be considering his options, which could involve appealing to the European court of human rights in Strasbourg.
Daniel McArthur, whose family runs Ashers, said outside the supreme court: “I want to start by thanking God. He has been with us for the last four years. We are delighted with the ruling. We always knew we had done nothing wrong in turning down the order. We are very grateful to the judges.
“We did not turn down this order because of the person who made it, but because of the message itself.”
Michael Wardlow, the head of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, said it had spent £250,000 supporting Lee’s appeal. It will now have to pay costs.
He said: “We are very disappointed. This judgment leaves a lack of clarity in equality law. Our understanding of certainty of the law has been overturned. The supreme court seems to see this as something that should be done on a case-by-case basis.”
The Rainbow Project, Northern Ireland’s largest support organisation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, expressed its disappointment at the ruling.
The Ashers ruling is an historic and seminal judgement. This has been a long journey for everyone involved in the case. I commend Amy & Daniel McArthur for their grace and perseverance. This now provides clarity for people of all faiths and none.
John O’Doherty, the project’s director, said: “Ashers agreed to make the cake. They entered into a contractual agreement to make this cake and then changed their mind.
“We believe this is direct discrimination for which there can be no justification. We will, however, take time to study this judgment by the supreme court to understand fully its implications for the rights of LGBT people to access goods, facilities and services without discrimination.”
A spokesperson for the gay rights organisation Stonewall said: “This is a backward step for equality which needs to be urgently addressed. The decision that Ashers bakery were not discriminatory in the so-called ‘gay cake’ row is very concerning for anyone who cares about equality.”
But the human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, said: “This verdict is a victory for freedom of expression. As well as meaning that Ashers cannot be legally forced to aid the promotion of same-sex marriage, it also means that gay bakers cannot be compelled by law to decorate cakes with anti-gay marriage slogans.
“Although I profoundly disagree with Ashers’ opposition to marriage equality, in a free society neither they nor anyone else should be forced to facilitate a political idea that they oppose. The ruling does not permit anyone to discriminate against LGBT people. Such discrimination rightly remains unlawful.”
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK or Ireland where same-sex marriage is outlawed. The Democratic Unionist party leader, Arlene Foster, said the judgment was “historic and seminal”.