European court rules in favor of Christian bakery that refused to make cake supporting gay marriage

A photo of the judges of the European Court of Human Rights sitting in the courtroom during a hearing.
A photo of the judges of the European Court of Human Rights sitting in the courtroom during a hearing. | Reuters/Vincent Kessler

The European Court of Human Rights has rejected a complaint against a Christian bakery in Northern Ireland that refused to make a cake supporting gay marriage on religious grounds.

The Strasbourg-based court charged with interpreting the European Convention on Human Rights rejected the complaint of Gareth Lee. The member of the LGBT advocacy group QueerSpace sued Ashers Bakery in Belfast in 2014 over the refusal to bake a cake expressing support for same-sex marriage. 

The European Court of Human Rights deemed Lee’s complaint inadmissible on Thursday.

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“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,” the ECHR concluded in its decision.

“Because he had failed to exhaust domestic remedies, the application was inadmissible.”

The Christian Institute, the group representing the bakery owners, Amy and Daniel McArthur, celebrated the dismissal by the top European court.

“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. It was disappointing to see another attempt to undermine those rights, so it is a relief that the attempt has failed,” Christian Institute spokesman Simon Calvert said in a statement.

“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.”

Bert and Ernie “support gay marriage” cake turned down by U.K. Christian bakery, facing threat of legal action in June 2014.
Bert and Ernie “support gay marriage” cake turned down by U.K. Christian bakery, facing threat of legal action in June 2014. | (Photo: The Christian Institute Youtube screenshot)

Lee said in a statement that he is disappointed that his complaint “did not get fairly analyzed and adjudicated upon because of a technicality.”

“None of us should be expected to have to figure out the beliefs of a company’s owners before going into their shop or paying for their services,” said Lee, as quoted by BBC.

“Everyone has freedom of expression and it must equally apply to lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people.”

Lee sued the McArthur family in 2014 after they refused to make a cake that would feature “Sesame Street” characters Bert and Ernie with the slogan “Support Gay Marriage” at the top.

The Belfast County Court ruled against the bakery and fined the couple the equivalent of $600. A three-judge appeals court upheld the decision in October 2016.

“In the present case the appellants might elect not to provide a service that involves any religious or political message,” ruled the appeals court.

“What they may not do is provide a service that only reflects their own political or religious message in relation to sexual orientation.”

The bakery appealed to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, which ruled in 2018 that the “objection was to the message on the cake, not any personal characteristics of the messenger, or anyone with whom he was associated.”

“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 high court concluded.

“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.”  

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