Gay beliefs v religious beliefs: gay cake row judgment

Hearts cake

Today, a judge in Northern Ireland has handed down an eagerly awaited judgment in relation to a row over a message supporting gay marriage to be iced on a cake.

The Ashers Bakery Company is run by the McArthur family, who, because of their Christian faith, do not support gay rights or marriage. The McArthur family had initially taken an order from Mr Gareth Lee (a gay rights activist) for a cake with a picture of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street, a slogan that read ‘Support Gay Marriage’ and the logo of LGBT organisation Queer Space to be placed on the icing.

The McArthur family, after consulting about the order, decided that they would not be able to complete it, and informed Mr Lee before refunding him.

The Northern Ireland Equality Commission bought a case of discrimination on the grounds of sexual discrimination against The Ashers Bakery Company, on behalf of Mr Lee.

The judgment has been given by Judge Brownlie who confirmed that two Directors of The Ashers Bakery Company have unlawfully directly discriminated against Mr Lee. Judge Brownlie said she was satisfied that the McArthur family had “genuine and deeply held religious beliefs” but said they must have been aware that Mr Lee was gay and were aware of the ongoing same sex marriage debate.

This high-profile case has divided public opinion in Belfast and beyond, especially as same-sex marriage remains a contentious issue in Northern Ireland and attempts to have it legalised have been rejected four times by the devolved Assembly at Stormont.

Some are criticising the judgment as creating a hierarchy of rights where gay rights trump religious beliefs. However, others are arguing that this is not the case because if The Ashers Bakery Company was run by a gay man who refused to ice a cake saying ‘support opposite sex marriage’, it would be just as unlawful as it would be in this case.

Whether there is a hierarchy of rights being created or not, this case clearly illustrates the difficulties which can arise when dealing with competing rights. This will not only have an impact on the decisions you make as a business when offering services to the public (such as in this case), but will also impact the way you manage your staff and their rights against the business’s needs and the rights and beliefs of other members of staff.

Given the difficulties, we advise that you seek immediate legal advice from a member of our Employment team should you ever find yourself in a situation of having to deal with competing protected rights under Equality law.

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