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The ‘gay-cake’ case update

The Northern Ireland Court of Appeal has decided in the case of Lee v Ashers Baking Company that the bakery committed sexual orientation discrimination when it refused to write a message on a cake concerning gay marriage.

Background

A shop assistant at Ashers bakery took an order from Mr Lee requesting a cake to be decorated with a picture of the Sesame Street characters Bert & Ernie and the caption ‘Support Gay Marriage’.

The owners of the bakery, Mr and Mrs McArthur, subsequently cancelled the order because they were devout Christians who viewed gay marriage as sinful.

Claim

The County Court upheld Mr Lee’s claim that he had been discriminated against on the ground of sexual orientation. The bakery appealed.

The Court of Appeal upheld the decision of the County Court. It held that the bakery would not have refused to make a cake decorated with the slogan ‘Support Heterosexual Marriage’ and therefore it was a case of ‘associative discrimination’ with the gay and bisexual community and amounted to direct discrimination.

The Court of Appeal went on to say that the McArthurs’ right to free speech was not being infringed as nobody could reasonably conclude that by decorating the cake with the words requested they were expressing their own personal support for the slogan. The McArthurs were not entitled to refuse to decorate cakes with a particular religious or political message just because it conflicted with their own views.

Comment

This case demonstrates to organisations that it is not just discrimination against employees that could lead to court claims, companies should remember that discrimination can occur in the provision of goods and services to customers or clients.

It seems that religious beliefs will not be accepted as justification for discrimination against service users, in this case on the grounds of sexual orientation, and a business that tries to selectively refuse its services on the grounds of particular religious beliefs is unlikely to be looked upon favourably in the event a claim is made against it.

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