A judge in Northern Ireland has ruled that a bakery illegally discriminated when it refused to bake a cake for a gay rights group that read “Support Gay Marriage” and featured a picture of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street.
According to Belfast Judge Isobel Brownlie, Ashers Bakery was liable for “direct discrimination for which there can be no justification” in violation of protections for both sexual orientation as well as political and religious opinion. Despite the owners’ argument that they had religious objections to the message, Brownlie ruled that they were “conducting a business for profit” and thus did not enjoy religious exemptions from nondiscrimination law. “They are in a business supplying services to all. The law requires them to do just that.”
She pointed out that regardless of the owners’ “genuine and deeply held religious beliefs,” they must have made assumptions about the identity of customer Gareth Lee or the identity of his group, QueerSpace, which was also identified on the cake design. “They must have known or had the perception that the plaintiff was gay… They must have known that the plaintiff supported gay marriage or associated with others who supported gay marriage.”
The owners will be required to pay £500 (just under $800), as well as legal fees for Lee, which are much more substantial. Lee has said that he will donate the fine to charity.
Daniel McArthur, one of the owners of Ashers Bakery along with his parents, claims no wrong-doing and insists the bakery will continue to operate as before. Extremely disappointed with the ruling, he explained, “We’ve said from the start that our issue was with the message on the cake, not with the customer and that we didn’t know what the sexual orientation of Mr. Lee was, and it wasn’t relevant either. We’ve always been happy to serve any customers who come into our shops. The ruling suggests that all business owners will have to be willing to promote any cause or campaign, no matter how much they disagree with it.”
Paul Givan, a Member of the Legislative Assembly representing the Democratic Unionist Party, has called for the passage of a “conscience clause” to protect businesses like Ashers, not unlike the proposed Religious Freedom Restoration Acts states like Indiana and Arkansas recently passed in the U.S. “What we cannot have is a hierarchy of rights,” he said in response to the decision, “and today there’s a clear hierarchy being established that gay rights are more important than the rights of people to hold religious beliefs.” The Sinn Féin party has promised to block any such measure.