Cake slogans and Christian bakers: the right to refuse is good for everyone

LGBT advocate Gareth Lee wanted Ashers to make this gay-themed cake

It's more than five years since Mr Gareth Lee walked into a Belfast Bakery and ordered a cake to be iced with the slogan ​'support gay marriage'. The order was initially accepted and then declined due to the Christian beliefs of the family who owned the bakery. Mr Lee, backed by the Equality Commission in Northern Ireland, sued the bakery for damages for alleged discrimination on the grounds of his sexual orientation, political opinion and the religious beliefs of the bakery owners.

Mr Lee won his case at first instance at Belfast County Court on all three grounds in 2015. However, three years later on 10 October 2018, five Supreme Court judges sitting in London, the highest court in the UK, reversed this decision and found completely in favour of the bakery owners.

I was asked to comment on the judgment by the BBC minutes after the news broke. Surprised and delighted by the unanimous ruling of no discrimination on any of the alleged grounds, I called the result 'a win for everyone'.

My point was that the judges were very clear that they found no discrimination against Mr Lee. Their judgment did not give license to discriminate against anyone based on any protected characteristic. Lady Hale said: ​"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. 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."

However, while this was a 'win' for Mr Lee, outside Court he said that he "felt like a second-class citizen". This was truly unfortunate and much damage has been caused by those on both 'sides' who framed the case as a tug of war between the rights of Christians and the LGBT community.

Ashers bakery is run by Daniel McArthur, who has always maintained that their objection was never against the person who ordered the cake but the message it sought to promote.The Christian Institute

The result was also a win for the McArthur family, the bakery owners. Lady Hale said: ​"It is, of course, the case that businesses offering services to the public are not entitled to discriminate on certain grounds. The bakery could not refuse to provide a cake – or any other of their products – to Mr Lee because he was a gay man or because he supported gay marriage. But that important fact does not amount to a justification for something completely different – obliging them to supply a cake iced with a message with which they profoundly disagreed. In my view, they would be entitled to refuse to do that whatever the message conveyed by the icing on the cake – support for living in sin, support for a particular political party, support for a particular religious denomination."

The concept of religious freedom is one held dear by evangelicals, not just for their own benefit but for the freedom and good of everyone in society. As far back as the 1860s, the Evangelical Alliance appointed a 'foreign secretary', Mr Herman Schmettou to 'send deputations to numerous governments, in order to secure religious freedom not only for evangelicals but also for Roman Catholics, Nestorians, Jews and others', which you can read more about in Randall & Hillborn's One Body in Christ – The history and significance of the Evangelical Alliance.

That's why this case was a win for everyone. It struck a careful balance between protecting people from discrimination and protecting people from being legally obligated to supply a message which directly contradicted their strongly held beliefs.

Mr Lee's latest bid to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights takes the case into new territory. The key principles will remain, alleged discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, political opinion and religious beliefs. However, the baking company will no longer be the defendant and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland will also no longer be involved as a key party to the case. Instead, the case will be against the UK government for an alleged failure to protect Mr Lee from discrimination. The UK is a state party to the ECHR, a fact which, incidentally, will not change when the UK leaves the European Union.

We hope and pray that the UK government strongly defends this case so that everyone can continue to be protected from discrimination when it comes to the supply of goods and services and so that people of all faiths and none can continue to be protected from being compelled to produce messages which they profoundly disagree with. A win for everyone – that's the icing on the cake.

David Smyth is Public Policy Officer at the Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland