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Conscience Rights Victory: ‘Gay Cake’ Saga Brought to a Close by Tristan Vanheuckelom

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Conscience Rights Victory: ‘Gay Cake’ Saga Brought to a Close

A Northern Ireland case, in which a gay rights activist claimed discrimination by a Christian bakery, has been thrown out by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).  

The case was first brought to the UK Supreme Court in 2018, which ruled Gareth Lee was not discriminated against when the Belfast-based Ashers Baking Company refused to make him a cake iced with the slogan “Support Gay Marriage.” 

Mr. Lee then took his case—better known as the ‘gay cake’ case— to the ECHR, relying on the European Convention of Human Rights. On Thursday, the ECHR published its written ruling which stated that Lee’s case was dismissed as inadmissible, saying: 

Convention arguments must be raised explicitly or in substance before the domestic authorities. The applicant had not invoked his Convention rights at any point in the domestic proceedings. 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. Because he had failed to exhaust domestic remedies, the application was inadmissible.

Lee v. the United Kingdom, European Court of Human Rights, 6 January 2022.

The proposed design of the cake ordered by Gareth Lee in 2014.

The case goes back to May 2014, when Mr. Lee, a member of the LGBT advocacy group QueerSpace, ordered a £36.50 cake featuring Sesame Street muppets Bert and Ernie with a pro-same-sex marriage slogan for a private function marking the International Day Against Homophobia.

Two days after having accepted the order and it being paid in full, the Christian owners of the bakery called to say the order could not be fulfilled because its message conflicted with their Christian belief that marriage is between a man and a woman.

With support by Northern Ireland’s Equality Commission, a case was launched alleging discrimination on the grounds of Mr. Lee’s homosexuality, which won hearings at the county court and the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal in 2015 and 2016.

The owners of Ashers, Daniel and Amy McArthur—with backing by The Christian Institute—challenged those rulings at the Supreme Court, and in 2018, five justices unanimously ruled there was no case of discrimination against the customer.

In the 2018 judgement, president of the Supreme Court Lady Hale ruled that the bakers did not refuse to fulfil the order because of Mr. Lee’s sexual orientation:

They would have refused to make such a cake for any customer, irrespective of their sexual orientation. Their objection was to the message on the cake, not to the personal characteristics of Mr Lee.

A statement by LGBT support organization, the Rainbow Project, said that, following the Supreme Court decision in October 2018, “there remains a number of questions around what protections exist for LGBTQIA+ people when accessing goods, facilities and services,” and that “unfortunately, with today’s decision, that uncertainty will remain.”

Spokesman Simon Calvert of The Christian Institute called the ECHR ruling “the right result.” He applauded the UK Supreme Court, which ”engaged at length with the human rights arguments in this case and upheld the McArthurs’ rights to freedom of expression and religion,” while expressing disappointment to “see another attempt to undermine those rights.” He concluded that “this is good news for free speech, good news for Christians, and good news for the McArthurs.”

Tristan Vanheuckelom writes on film, literature, and comics for various Dutch publications. He is an avid student of history, political theory, and religion, and is a News Writer at The European Conservative.


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