What follows was based solely on news reports. A formal case-note based on the judgment itself is now available here: Lee v Ashers Baking Co Ltd & Ors – an analysis.
Regular readers will no doubt recall that the proprietors of Ashers Bakery refused to bake a cake for Gareth Lee bearing the slogan “Support Gay Marriage” with the Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie. He had ordered the cake for an event to mark International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia in May 2014 and Ashers initially accepted his order but later cancelled it and returned his money. Subsequently, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland supported legal action against the bakery for alleged discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and (possibly) on grounds of political opinion – and drew a sharp public rebuke from the First Minister, Peter Robinson MLA, for doing so.
The case was heard at Belfast County Court by District Judge Brownlie in April and in her reserved judgment handed down today she found that the defendants had discriminated unlawfully against Mr Lee on grounds of sexual orientation. Mr Lee was awarded £500 damages (plus, presumably, costs).
According to Deborah McAleese of the Belfast Telegraph, who helpfully tweeted bits of the judgment (a transcript of which is not yet available), DJ Brownlie accepted that the defendants were Christians and regular churchgoers who sought to live at all times in accordance with the doctrines of Bible. She accepted that their religious beliefs were genuine and that, because of them, they felt that they could not promote same-sex marriage. Nevertheless, as much as she acknowledged their religious beliefs, they were in business to provide service to all – and that was what the law prescribed. The defendants were not a religious organisation: they were a business for profit and there were no exceptions available to them. Mr Lee had been discriminated against on grounds of sexual orientation directly and without justification on both political and religious grounds; and even if she had been persuaded that Ashers had been unaware of Mr Lee’s political beliefs she still would have found that they had treated him less favourably.
As to Article 9 ECHR, though she accepted the sincerity of the defendants’ Christian beliefs, they were limited as to how they could manifest them. There were competing human rights in play in the case; and the current law limited the manifestation of the defendants’ religious beliefs. The defendants were entitled to hold and manifest their religious beliefs but only in accordance with the law: to do otherwise would be to allow religious belief to dictate the law.
In the meantime, Paul Givan MLA, of the Democratic Unionist Party, has consulted on bringing forward a private Members’ bill to include a so-called “conscience clause” in equality legislation, arguing that businesses should have the right to refuse to provide services which they believe could compromise their religious beliefs. The bill has not yet been introduced; and Sinn Féin has said that it will veto it in any case. In the wake of today’s judgment Mr Givan was reported by the Belfast Telegraph as saying, “The Equality Commission should apologise. I hope this case will be appealed.” But hang on, Paul Givan MLA: Gareth Lee, with the support of the ECNI, won his case. So precisely what does the Commission have to apologise about? Trying to make sure that the law is adhered to?
And while we’re on the subject, Ireland’s referendum on amending the Constitution to allow for legislation on same-sex marriage will be held this coming Friday, 22 May.
Update: the transcript is available here.