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Victory for freedom of expression as bakers win Supreme Court case

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The Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that Ashers bakery’s refusal to make a cake with a slogan supporting same-sex marriage was not discriminatory.

The cake with a slogan

Daniel and Amy McArthur, the Christian owners of the Northern Ireland bakery, were supported by the Christian Institute in their appeal. Back in 2014, the bakery refused to make a cake with the slogan “Support Gay Marriage”. The customer, gay rights activist Gareth Lee, then sued the company for discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and political beliefs.

Ashers bakery lost the original case and the subsequent appeal, but on Wednesday they won the appeal in the highest court of the land.

Asked to go against their conscience

The McArthursare Christians who hold to the biblical teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that sexual expression should be reserved for marriage. When Mr Lee placed an order for a cake with the QueerSpace logo and the slogan “Support Gay Marriage”, the McArthurs took time to consider and then decided that they could not, in good conscience, produce a cake with this slogan with which they profoundly disagreed.

Claim for discrimination

Mr Lee complained to the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland which then supported him in bringing his claim for discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, religious belief, or political opinion. The Equality Commission is reported to have spent more that £250,000 of public money on this case. Concern was expressed in the Court of Appeal that the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland had created the impression that it was not interested in assisting members of the faith community who found themselves in difficulties as a result of their deeply held religious beliefs. The Supreme Court judgment reiterates this criticism. Equality Commission should never have supported a case that would have seriously restricted freedom of expression and freedom of conscience in the UK.

Key findings of the court

The Supreme Court found that there was no discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. Mr Lee had previously been served at the bakery. The objection was to the message, not the messenger; they would have refused to supply a cake with this message if it had been requested by a heterosexual customer. “In a nutshell, the objection was to the message and not to any particular person or persons.” (Para. 34)

The court also found that there was not discrimination on grounds of political opinion. The bakery would have refused this order from someone with a different political opinion. They did not object to Mr Lee holding this political opinion, they objected to producing a cake with a political slogan which they, in conscience, could not support. They were and are quite prepared to serve Mr Lee with another cake without such a political slogan.

The court found that the bakery should not be obliged to supply a cake with a message with which they profoundly disagreed. The ruling states that they should be entitled to refuse to produce a cake with any moral or political message with which they disagreed. A clear distinction is drawn between objecting to the message on the cake and objecting to the customer. In this case it was the message that the bakers objected to, not the customer. “Nobody should be forced to have or express a political opinion in which he does not believe.” (Para. 52).

Implications for free speech and freedom of conscience

This strong ruling upholds free speech and freedom of conscience. It means that people cannot be forced to express views with which they profoundly disagree. This is a victory for freedom of expression. It means, for example, that a printer can refuse to print material with which they disagree. A business is not forced to take business which promotes something they disagree with. A Christian can refuse to print material celebrating pornography. An atheist can refuse to design a website promoting belief in God. A gay rights business does not have to produce goods saying that homosexual activity is sinful. A Catholic business does not have to produce goods promoting the decriminalisation of abortion.

Looked at another way, if the ruling had gone against Ashers, then a Muslim printer could be forced to print cartoons of Muhammad, or a Jewish printer could be forced to publish material advocating holocaust denial. Extremists could force businesses to produce goods or websites promoting their messages.

A victory for everyone

Andrea Williams, CEO of Christian Concern commented on the judgment. “This is great news. Well done to Ashers Baking Company and to the Christian Institute who supported them. This case was never about discrimination against a person. It was always about having the freedom to hold and express the biblical view that marriage is between a man and a woman. It was about not being forced to produce a message on a cake with which the McArthur family disagreed.”

Gay rights campaigner, Peter Tatchell, also welcomed the ruling. He said: “This verdict is a victory for freedom of expression. As well as meaning that Ashers cannot be legally forced to aid the promotion of same-sex marriage, it also means that gay bakers cannot be compelled by law to decorate cakes with anti-gay marriage slogans.”

This case is a win for everyone. No-one should be forced to promote a message which they disagree with.

A clear signal

Daniel McArthur spoke powerfully following the ruling:

“I want to start by thanking God. He has been with us during the challenges of the last four years. Through the Bible and the support of Christians, He has comforted us and sustained us. "He is our rock and all His ways are just.”

“We're delighted and relieved at today's ruling. We always knew we hadn't done anything wrong in turning down this order. After more than four years, the Supreme Court has now recognised that and we're very grateful. Grateful to the judges and especially grateful to God.

“We’re particularly pleased the Supreme Court emphatically accepted what we’ve said all along – we did not turn down this order because of the person who made it, but because of the message itself.

“The judges have given a clear signal today. In fact, it couldn’t be clearer. "Family businesses like ours are free to focus on giving all their customers the best service they can – without being forced to promote other people’s campaigns.”

“I know a lot of people will be very glad of this ruling today, because this ruling protects freedom of speech and freedom of conscience for everyone.

“On behalf of my family can I say thank you to everyone who has helped us and supported us and prayed for us.

“I do want also to thank the whole legal team for all of the work that they have put in over the last four years. And also, to thank the entire Christian Institute staff for their help and support – especially Simon Calvert, Sam Webster and Callum Webster – through all of this.

“We want to move on from this now, and I’m sure Mr Lee does as well. And let me finish by saying he’ll always be welcome in any of our shops. Thank you.”

Thank God

We join Daniel McArthur in thanking God for this ruling. It is a significant victory for freedom of expression, and freedom of conscience. It has wide-ranging implications. We hope that this ruling will encourage judges to have greater respect for freedom of conscience in other cases where Christians are being asked to act against their conscience in the workplace.


Supreme Court Judgment.

Daniel McArthur speaks after Supreme Court victory.

Peter Tatchell Foundation Statement: Ashers ‘gay cake’ verdict is a victory for freedom of expression.

Christian Institute Press Release: