Wednesday, October 10, 2018

UK Supreme Court Rules In Favor of Baker Who Refused To Supply Cake Supporting Gay Marriage

In a widely followed case, the United Kingdom Supreme Court today ruled in favor of Christian bakers in a case that became particularly high profile after the U.S. Supreme Court's Masterpiece Cakeshop decision.  In Lee v. Ashers Baking Company Ltd, (UKSC, Oct. 10, 2018), the court framed the question-- which arose under anti-discrimination provisions in the law of Northern Ireland-- as follows:
The substantive question in this case is whether it is unlawful discrimination, either on grounds of sexual orientation, or on grounds of religious belief or political opinion, for a bakery to refuse to supply a cake iced with the message “support gay marriage” because of the sincere religious belief of its owners that gay marriage is inconsistent with Biblical teaching and therefore unacceptable to God.
Rejecting the claim that the bakery engaged in direct discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the court said in part:
The reason for treating Mr Lee less favourably than other would-be customers was not his sexual orientation but the message he wanted to be iced on the cake. Anyone who wanted that message would have been treated in the same way.... By definition, direct discrimination is treating people differently....
In a nutshell, the objection was to the message and not to any particular person or persons....
Experience has shown that the providers of employment, education, accommodation, goods, facilities and services do not always treat people with equal dignity and respect, especially if they have certain personal characteristics which are now protected by the law. 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.
The court also rejected the contention that the bakery had discriminated against Mr. Lee on the basis of his political opinion:
The objection was not to Mr Lee because he, or anyone with whom he associated, held a political opinion supporting gay marriage. The objection was to being required to promote the message on the cake. The less favourable treatment was afforded to the message not to the man.... The situation is not comparable to people being refused jobs, accommodation or business simply because of their religious faith. It is more akin to a Christian printing business being required to print leaflets promoting an atheist message.
The court went on to hold that were the bakery required to furnish the cake, it would violate the owners' freedom of conscience and free expression rights protected by Articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The court gave a broad interpretation to the rights:
[T]here is no requirement that the person who is compelled to speak can only complain if he is thought by others to support the message. Mrs McArthur may have been worried that others would see the Ashers logo on the cake box and think that they supported the campaign. But that is by the way: what matters is that by being required to produce the cake they were being required to express a message with which they deeply disagreed.
In a Postscript, the court discussed the U.S. Supreme Court's Masterpiece Cakeshop opinion.  The court also issued a Press Summary of the opinion. Irish Times reports on the decision.
[Thanks to Marty Lederman and Seth Tillman via Religionlaw for the lead.] [This post has been updated to eliminate the statement that this case was "analogous" to Masterpiece Cakeshop.]