Gay man loses 'gay cake' case after European Court throws it out

Today's ruling is the latest in a long-running case that has seen both sides claim victory along the way.


Words: Alastair James

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that a complaint by a gay man that he was discriminated against when the Christian owners of a bakery in Belfast refused to make a cake endorsing same-sex marriage has been ruled as inadmissible. 

Gareth Lee claimed he was discriminated against back in 2014 when he asked Daniel and Amy McArthur, who run the Ashers bakery (pictured above) to make a cake featuring the Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie and the message 'Support Gay Marriage'. 

The application for the ECHR to rule on the case was brought in 2019 following the UK's Supreme Court ruling in favour of the bakery in 2018, which has overturned previous rulings in favour of Mr. Lee. 

"The application was inadmissible"

In its decision published today (Thursday 6 December) the ECHR says that "the applicant [Mr. Lee] had not invoked his Convention rights at any point in the domestic proceedings."

Continuing, it says with Mr. Lee relying on domestic law he "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."

Mr. Lee had argued to the ECHR that the Supreme Court's 2018 ruling had "interfered" with his human rights. The Guardian quotes Mr. Lee as saying after the ruling: "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."

In a statement Stonewall's CEO, Nancy Kelley, CEO of Stonewall describes the ruling as a "backwards step for equality."

She echoes Mr. Lee's sentiments that "No business should discriminate against their customers, and no discriminatory behavior should be held up by equality law. Today’s decision leaves the door open for legal uncertainty across the UK and causes continued unease for our communities."

Today's ruling is the latest in a long-running case that has seen both sides claim victory along the way and protests supporting both sides. 

Following the Ashers bakery's refusal to make the same-sex marriage supporting cake in 2014, a complaint was made to Northern Ireland's Equality Commission warning the bakery it was discriminating against Mr. Lee. 

The McArthurs have always claimed that their refusal was never about Mr. Lee's sexual orientation, but about the message he wanted on the cake, which was "at odds" with their beliefs.

An initial court hearing was heard in Belfast in 2015, which ruled in Mr. Lee's favour. This was then appealed by Ashers bakery in 2016, which they lost. They then took their case to the Supreme Court, which decided that the bakery was not discriminating against Mr. Lee. 

As per the BBC, Lady Hale, who was then President of the Supreme Court, said: "They [the bakery] would have refused to make such a cake for any customer, irrespective of their sexual orientation," and that "their objection was to the message on the cake, not to the personal characteristics of Mr. Lee."

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