In May 2014, Mr. Lee ordered a cake from Ashers Baking in Northern Ireland to celebrate the end of Anti-Homophobia Week. The cake was to be decorated with the logo of a pro-LGBT organization, and the caption “Support same-sex marriage.” The bakery refused to serve the cake, stating that it was a “Christian business.”
Mr. Lee sued in district court for discrimination based on his sexual orientation and political opinion (ie his support for same-sex marriage). Both claims were upheld in the lower court. The bakery appealed to the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal and then to the Supreme Court, to no avail.
The Supreme Court allowed the appeal, holding that the bakery refused to serve the cake because of the letter requested by Mr. Lee, and not because of Mr. Lee’s sexual orientation or political opinion. In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court took into account the right of bakery owners to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and freedom of expression.
She held that the bakery did not discriminate against Mr. Lee on the basis of his sexual orientation or political opinion, but because, as a Christian bakery, he would object to being asked to put any message on a cake that did not correspond to the opinions of the owners. For example, it was also possible to refuse a request to decorate a cake with an atheist message.
What was the decision of the European Court of Human Rights?
Mr. Lee submitted an application to the European Court of Human Rights based on Article 8 – the right to respect for private life, Article 9 – freedom of thought, conscience and religion, Article 10 – freedom of expression, and Article 14 – prohibition of discrimination in the European Convention on Human Rights.
However, the European Court of Human Rights declared the request inadmissible because Mr. Lee did not invoke his rights under the Convention at any time during the domestic proceedings.
What can be learned?
the Lee Company v. Ashers Bakery Company Understandably emotional, some critics have called the ECHR’s decision a “missed opportunity” to address the core issues at hand. While it is not an employment issue, it does highlight the complexity of discrimination issues when balancing the various protected characteristics against each other, and against any broader ethics of the organization.
For more information on discrimination issues, please contact Nick Murrell on our Labor Law team at 0117314 5627, or complete the form below.