In May 2015, we reported 'Christian bakery loses ‘gay rights’ HR case' that the Christian owners of a Northern Irish bakery had lost a discrimination case brought by a pro-LGBT customer. The bakery appealed to the Northern Irish Court of Appeal, which has upheld the first-instance court’s decision that the bakery discriminated against their customer.
The customer, a volunteer with LGBT advocacy group Queer Space, had ordered a cake for a function in May 2014 to celebrate ‘International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia”. He had asked for the motto “Support gay marriage” and pictures of Bert and Ernie, characters from Sesame Street, to be displayed on the cake. The bakery refused to process the order, saying that to do so would be “at odds with their beliefs.” Owner Daniel McArthur said that the bakery would “happily serve everyone but we cannot promote a cause that goes against what the Bible says about marriage. We have tried to be guided in our actions by our Christian beliefs.”
The customer garnered the support of the Northern Irish Equality Commission and he brought a case in the Belfast County Court in May last year, complaining that refusal to complete this order constituted direct discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. The County Court held that the bakery had directly discriminated against the customer on grounds of sexual orientation. Furthermore, the Christian owners of the bakery were not entitled to rely upon their religious beliefs to enable them to refuse to serve customers or process orders. The bakery was ordered to pay £500 in compensation to the customer.
The Court of Appeal has now upheld the decision of the County Court, stating that the reason for the refusal to complete the order was because the message on the cake referred to gay marriage. The refusal to complete the order therefore amounted to direct discrimination.
This case reiterates the emerging clash of rights between religion and sexual orientation in the workplace. Both religion and sexual orientation are protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010; however it has become apparent that religious believers cannot seek to utilise their beliefs to discriminate against others, causing some to claim that a hierarchy of rights has emerged. Indeed the Court of Appeal held that the County Court judgment had not interfered with the bakery owners’ right to free speech. It said that the public would not conclude that by icing this cake, the bakery owners were giving their own personal support for gay marriage.
While this case did not directly concern employment law, it did engage the Equality Act which predominately concerns discrimination in employment. Other cases have seen parallel tensions between competing rights and therefore the judgment in this case is relevant to the balancing act employers sometimes face in similar circumstances. The appeal decision sends a definitive warning to employers and providers of goods and services that they must not discriminate against employees or customers on any grounds. Refusal to serve a particular customer or client due to religious beliefs may well land employers / providers of goods and services in hot water with courts and tribunals.