June 15, 2015
Should a business owner be permitted to refuse to service some individuals over others? Are the customer’s rights more important than the beliefs of the business? Was this discrimination on the grounds of religious or political beliefs?
A continuing political debate in Northern Ireland, enabling same-sex civil marriage, has been fuelled by Ashers Bakery in Northern Ireland by declining instructions from Mr Gareth Lee to ice a motif of “support same sex marriage” on a cake. Mr Lee claims that he has been discriminated against contrary to the provisions of the ‘Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006’.
Mr Lee is a gay man and is associated with the organisation ‘QueerSpace’, a volunteer led organisation for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community in Northern Ireland. Gareth was intending to attend a private event on in May 2014 to mark the end of anti-homophobia week. He placed an order for a cake, after previously purchasing items at Ashers Bakery. The order consisted of a cake with a graphic “support same sex marriage” iced onto the cake which was paid for and a receipt was issued.
Mr Lee was then told over the phone that his order could not be carried out because Ashers Bakery are a Christian business. The order was cancelled and Mr Lee received a refund. Mr Lee felt “shocked and bewildered” by this treatment and the cancellation due to him being gay and supporting same-sex marriage.
Ashers Bakery promotes Christian beliefs and say they did not agree or support same-sex marriage. In their witness statement they stated that “I believe the only divinely ordained sexual relationship is that between a man and a woman within the bonds of matrimony”. Ashers Bakery also insisted that their decision not to ice the cake with the motif was not related to Mr Lee’s sexual orientation. Instead, they did not want their business name to be associated with the private event encouraging same-sex marriages.
Judgment was given in favour of Mr Lee and it was decided that Ashers Bakery had discriminated against Mr Lee because of his sexual orientation. Mr Lee is a gay man, a fact known to the Bakery owners and the promotion of their Christian beliefs by refusing to carry out an order in view of it sending a message contrary to their heterosexual beliefs was found to be discriminatory.
This case provides interesting consideration for any business owner. The Bakery have lodged an appeal and we shall be interested to see whether a new decision will be reached following a review.