In 2014, when a gay activist, Gareth Lee, requested a cake with the words “Support Gay Marriage” from Ashers bakery, a family-run business in Northern Ireland, his order was declined. The owners explained that this message was contrary to their Christian beliefs. But Lee believed that this had been an act of unlawful discrimination on the grounds of his sexuality.
The Ashers were subjected to four years of legal fees (amounting to 200,000 pounds). Both the Belfast County Court and Court of Appeals decided they had acted unlawfully. This week, however, the U.K. Supreme Court ruled in the Ashers’ favor.
The unanimous decision was reached by a panel of five judges, who cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s similar decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission:
The important message from the Masterpiece Cakeshop case is that there is a clear distinction between refusing to produce a cake conveying a particular message, for any customer who wants such a cake, and refusing to produce a cake for the particular customer who wants it because of that customer’s characteristics.
Jack Philips, a Christian baker in Colorado, had refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding but offered other items in the store. But the Ashers’ case was even more clean-cut, surely. This wasn’t even about a cake — but a political slogan.
Imagine, for instance, it was the other way around. Imagine, as the British journalist Ross Clark suggested, that someone who supported gay marriage was asked to bake a cake saying, “Oppose Gay Marriage.” That would rightly be considered overreaching.
Of course, what makes religious freedom so fundamental is that it is universal. America was founded with freedom of religion in mind. This includes but should not be conflated with freedom from religion. In other words, in liberal democracies, like the U.K. and the U.S., no one should be forced to do something that contradicts their most cherished beliefs. And that includes baking a political cake.