European Court Rejects ‘Gay Cake’ Case as Inadmissible; Ruling in Favor of Christian Bakery Stands

“The UK Supreme Court engaged at length with the human rights arguments in this case and upheld the McArthurs’ rights to freedom of expression and religion,” Calvert said.

On Jan. 6, the ECHR determined that Lee’s case was inadmissible because he had “failed to exhaust domestic remedies.”
On Jan. 6, the ECHR determined that Lee’s case was inadmissible because he had “failed to exhaust domestic remedies.” (photo: Sara Valenti / Shutterstock)

The European Court of Human Rights has rejected a case brought by a Northern Irish gay rights activist, who claims a bakery discriminated against him by refusing to create a cake with a message supporting gay marriage, as inadmissable.

Gareth Lee ordered a cake in May 2014 from Ashers Bakery located in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. He requested the cake bear the message “support gay marriage,” a message to which the owners, the McArthurs, objected on account of their Christian faith.  

The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom had reached a unanimous verdict in favor of the McArthurs in 2018, after a lower court had ruled against the bakers. Lee had appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, bringing a new case against the UK government. 

On Jan. 6, the ECHR determined that Lee’s case was inadmissible because he had “failed to exhaust domestic remedies.” 

The ECHR said he had not raised arguments based on the European Convention on Human Rights with the UK courts: “By relying solely on domestic law, the applicant had deprived the domestic courts of the opportunity to address any Convention issues raised, instead asking the court to usurp the role of the domestic courts.”

Simon Calvert, spokesman for The Christian Institute, a non-denominational charity which has supported the McArthurs since 2014, stated: “This is the right result.”

“The UK Supreme Court engaged at length with the human rights arguments in this case and upheld the McArthurs’ rights to freedom of expression and religion,” Calvert said.

“It was disappointing to see another attempt to undermine those rights, so it is a relief that the attempt has failed. I’m surprised anyone would want to overturn a ruling that protects gay business owners from being forced to promote views they don’t share, just as much as it protects Christian business owners.”

Amy McArthur, who runs the bakery with her husband Daniel, initially took Lee’s order, saying she raised no objection at the time because she wished to consider how to explain her objection and to spare Lee any embarrassment. Amy telephoned Lee a few days later and explained that his order could not be fulfilled because they were a Christian business and could not print the slogan requested. She apologized and gave him a full refund.

In March 2015, Lee filed a complaint with the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, which took the owners to court in May. During the hearing of the case, the MacArthurs made it clear that they had served Lee in the past and would happily do so again in the future. The McArthur family said the pro-gay theme of the cake conflicted with their personal religious beliefs, stressing that the problem was not the customer, but the message on the product.

Belfast judge Isobel Brownlie ruled in May 2015 that this case was discriminatory because “the defendants are not a religious organization. They conduct a business for profit.” Ashers paid £500 ($760) to the customer for “injury to feelings” over what was deemed unfair treatment based on political and sexual discrimination regulations. 

Writing for the UK Supreme Court in 2018, Lady Brenda Hale, the court’s president, determined that support for gay marriage was a political stance and as such was the subject of the bakery's objection. 

The Supreme Court found that since support for gay marriage was not limited to gay people, or necessarily determined by one's sexual orientation, declining to bake a cake with that message could not be seen as an act of discrimination based on the sexual orientation of the person ordering it or those associated with him.

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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