DUBLIN — Britain’s Supreme Court supported on Wednesday the right of a Belfast bakery to refuse to bake a cake with a message supporting same-sex marriage, finding that its Christian owners could not be compelled to reproduce a message contrary to their beliefs.
Although the person who requested the cake was gay, a five-judge panel found that the bakery owners’ refusal was based not on his sexual orientation, but on their Protestant faith’s opposition to gay marriage.
“There was no discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation,” said the judgment, which overturned the rulings of two lower courts.
It cited the United States Supreme Court’s decision in June in favor of a Colorado baker who had refused to create a wedding cake for a gay couple, a narrow decision that left open the larger question of whether a business can discriminate against gay men and lesbians based on First Amendment rights.
The British case centered on Ashers Baking Company in Northern Ireland, which in 2014 rejected an order by the gay activist Gareth Lee for a cake with the message “Support Gay Marriage.” He also wanted images of the “Sesame Street” characters Bert and Ernie, considered by some to be gay icons.
Mr. Lee intended to share the cake at a meeting in support of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, which does not permit the unions.
He said he had not known that the bakery’s owners, the McArthur family, were Christian when he placed his order. One of the owners initially accepted the order, only to later reject it.
A Belfast court initially ruled that the bakery had discriminated against Mr. Lee on the basis of his sexual orientation and fined it 500 pounds, or $660. That decision was upheld by the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal, but Wednesday’s ruling overturned it.
“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,” the new judgment said. “But that is not what happened in this case and it does the project of equal treatment no favors to seek to extend it beyond its proper scope.”
The judges cited as a precedent the United States Supreme Court case in which the Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple in 2012.
“The important message from the Masterpiece Cakeshop case is that there is a clear distinction between refusing to produce a cake conveying a particular message, for any customer who wants such a cake, and refusing to produce a cake for the particular customer who wants it because of that customer’s characteristics,” they wrote, adding that the Belfast bakery “would have refused to supply this particular cake to anyone, whatever their personal characteristics.”
Daniel McArthur, a member of the family that runs Ashers Bakery, said they were “delighted” with the ruling.
“We always knew we had done nothing wrong in turning down the order,” he told the Guardian newspaper. “We did not turn down this order because of the person who made it, but because of the message itself.”
But Michael Wardlow, the head of Northern Ireland’s Equality Commission, a government agency, said the decision raised concerns that “the beliefs of business owners may take precedence over a customer’s equality rights.”
Same-sex marriage is not legal in Northern Ireland, although it is permitted in the rest of the United Kingdom and in the Republic of Ireland. In 2015, the region’s Parliament voted by a narrow majority in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. But the measure was blocked by the Democratic Unionist Party, which draws its support mostly from conservative Protestants.
A 2016 poll found that 65 percent of people in Northern Ireland support same-sex marriage, but that more than half of the region’s pro-British unionists, who are mainly Protestant, oppose it.
John O’Doherty, the director of the Rainbow Project, a Belfast group that supports gay rights, questioned the reasoning of the court ruling.
“It seems to be the opinion of the court that printing a message on something is the same thing as endorsing that message,” he said. “I think a lot of print companies that take on contracts from political parties would disagree strongly with that.”
“If this had been a not-for-profit Christian bakery it would be a different matter,” he added. “But this is a business where the vast majority of people who shop there or work there would have no idea whether it was supposed to be Christian or not.”
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