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A Northern Ireland County Court has ruled that a claimant was directly discriminated against when a bakery refused to bake a cake for him with the slogan 'Support Gay Marriage', contrary to the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006 (EA (NI) 2006).
In Lee v Ashers Baking Co Ltd and others, Mr Lee, a homosexual man, associated with QueerSpace (an organisation for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community in Northern Ireland) ordered a cake from Ashers Bakery with the slogan 'Support Gay Marriage' in celebration of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. The bakery initially took his order, but subsequently decided that they couldn't fulfil the order and refunded Mr Lee stating it was 'a Christian business and, in hindsight, she should not have taken the order'.
Mr Lee, whose case was backed by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, brought a case against the bakery for discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. The bakery argued that it wasn't discriminating against Mr Lee's sexuality but its refusal to fulfil the order had been based on the wording of the slogan.
The judge found that the two directors of the bakery were guilty of direct discrimination, contrary to EA (NI) 2006. The judge confirmed that as the bakery was purely a commercial venture, the directors of the bakery were not able to rely on the statutory exemption for organisations with religious beliefs and noted there was nothing in the bakery's Memorandum and Articles of Association in relation to religious beliefs or values.
It should be noted that this case was decided under the equalities laws in Northern Ireland which differ from those in England and Wales.
However, the case is in line with the Supreme Court decision of Bull and another v Hall and another, where bed and breakfast owners were found guilty of both direct and indirect discrimination when they refused to allow Mr Hall and Mr Preddy, civil partners, to share a double room because they were not married.
Whilst not employment cases themselves, both the cases referred to above provide guidance for employers in the difficult area of competing rights under the Equality Act. Employers may have to make decisions about how far employees are free to express their religious views if these conflict with the rights of others.