An evangelical couple have won their court ordeal after the U.K.'s Supreme Court decided that they did not discriminate against a gay man by refusing to make him a same-sex wedding cake.
The couple, Daniel McArthur and his wife, Amy, of Ashers Bakery in Belfast, had previously lost the lower court case and a subsequent appeal that found them guilty of discrimination in 2014. They had been accused of refusing to make gay rights activist Gareth Lee a cake in support of same-sex marriage, which they said goes against their religious beliefs.
On Wednesday, the five justices unanimously overturned the guilty verdict in London.
"The district judge found that the appellants did not refuse to fulfill Mr. Lee's order because of his actual or perceived sexual orientation. The objection was to the message on the cake, not any personal characteristics of the messenger, or anyone with whom he was associated," reads the official judgment.
"The message was not indissociable from the sexual orientation of the customer, as support for gay marriage was not a proxy for any particular sexual orientation. The benefit of the message accrues not only to gay or bisexual people, but to their families and friends and to the wider community who recognize the social benefits which such commitment can bring. Thus, there was no discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in this case," it adds.
The case has been on the forefront of religious freedom vs. anti-discrimination debates in the U.K. for years.
The Christian Institute, the group representing the McArthurs, hailed what they called a landmark victory in a press release. Daniel McArthur, Ashers' general manager, spoke about his delight at the ruling, and gave thanks to God.
"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 recognized that and we're very grateful. Grateful to the judges and especially grateful to God," he declared.
"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 controversy all began in May 2014, when Ashers turned down an order for a cake with a message reading "Support Gay Marriage" featuring "Sesame Street" characters Bert and Ernie.
While they were sued for discrimination, the McArthurs repeatedly insisted that their evangelical faith prevents them from supporting such messages.
In response to the verdict, Lee argued that the case has made him feel like a second-class citizen, BBC News reported. The activist added that he is now concerned about "the implications for all of the gay community."
"To me, this was never about conscience or a statement. All I wanted to do was to order a cake in a shop," Lee added.
The Christian Institute Deputy Director (Public Affairs) Simon Calvert called the ruling "a total vindication of Ashers Baking Company and the McArthur family."
"The court strongly agreed with Ashers' lawyers that this case has always been about the message on the cake and not the customer; the message, not the messenger," Calvert said.
"Equality law was never intended to be used in the way the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland tried to use it in this case."