The cake itself cost just £36.50 but the legal battle it sparked has racked up total legal fees of nearly £500,000 and done little to clarify a complex area of discrimination law.
The row began back in 2014 when a bakery managed by Christians in Northern Ireland refused to make a cake with a slogan supporting same-sex marriage.
The customer, gay rights activist Gareth Lee, sued the bakery for discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and political beliefs.
But the bakery always insisted that its objection was to the message not the customer.
After a four-and-half-year long fight, five Supreme Court judges unanimously agreed with the bakery. They ruled that there was no political discrimination and no discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The case undoubtedly raises questions about what businesses can do, what customers can expect and what services can be refused on the basis of belief.
Bakery general manager Daniel McArthur, whose legal fees were paid by The Christian Institute, said after the Supreme Court hearing: “I know a lot people will be glad to hear this ruling today because it protects freedom of speech and freedom of conscience for everyone.”
Mr Lee, backed by the Equality Commission, said the decision had implications for all of the gay community: “To me, this was never about conscience or a statement,” he said. “All I wanted to do was to order a cake in a shop.”
Not a piece of cake…
Whilst many have heralded the Supreme Court’s decision as a victory for freedom of expression, does it auger a flood of disputes about discrimination in the workplace?
The Equality Act 2010 protects all people from discrimination, harassment or victimisation based on nine ‘protected characteristics’ – age, sex, race, disability, religion or belief, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, pregnancy or maternity and marriage or civil partnership.
What will be the position in future when protected characteristics clash? For example, to what extent can people be lawfully discriminated against when their beliefs, lifestyle or sexual orientation do not meet with others’ approval?
We predict that this isn’t going to be a piece of cake…!
For help and guidance about this area of the law, please contact Wards Solicitors’ Employment Law Consultant Solicitor, Julia Beasley.
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