Stonewell spoke in support of Gareth Lee after a bakery refused his request for a cake with an LGBTQ+ slogan. Image: Anna Shvets
The UK’s leading charity for LGBTQ+ rights has criticised the European Court of Human Rights for leaving “the door open to legal uncertainty” after it dismissed a filing from an activist over a seven-year discrimination dispute.
The decision to dismiss the case of Gareth Lee, who took legal action against a Belfast bakery which refused to decorate a cake with the slogan “support gay marriage”, was “a backwards step for equality”, said the Stonewall charity.
Lee initially took legal action against Ashers Bakery back in 2014, when the Christian-run bakery declined to complete his request after suggesting that the slogan was not in line with their religious beliefs.
“Human rights belong to people, not businesses,” the official Stonewall Twitter account wrote. “No business should discriminate against their customers, and no discriminatory behaviour 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.”
Lee has maintained his view that the bakery’s refusal was an act of discrimination on the grounds of sexual and political belief. Same-sex marriage was legalised in Northern Ireland in 2020.
Stonewall’s statement has received mixed responses from their Twitter followers. One user replies: “As much as it sucks, I understand their reasoning.” Another responds: “That’s still discrimination.”
In Lee’s original case, which took place in the lower courts, he won his appeal. Four years later, the UK supreme court disagreed with the lower court’s decision and overruled in favour of Ashers Bakery.
In a final fight, Lee took his case to the European Court of Human Rights. After being examined by seven judges earlier this week, the majority agreed that his argument was inadmissible. This was because he had relied on domestic law rather than European law.
It said: “The supreme court found on the facts of the case that the applicant was not treated differently on account of his real or perceived sexual orientation, but rather that the refusal to supply the cake was because of the defendants’ religious objection to gay marriage.
“What was principally at issue, therefore, was not the effect on the applicant’s private life or his freedom to hold or express his opinions or beliefs, but rather whether Ashers bakery was required to produce a cake expressing the applicant’s political support for gay marriage.”
Stonewall’s response to Lee’s experience has opened up debate within the LGBTQ+ community about same-sex discrimination and human rights. Members of the gay community and allies have taken to Twitter to express their opinions about the court’s decision.
The case has also caught the attention of celebrities including Boy George who tweeted: “Some may see this as a strike for common sense, but when you think about it how strong is your faith in a higher power if your beliefs make you so pitifully prejudiced!”
During the final ruling of the trial earlier this week, the judges stated that the case was inadmissible due to the fact that Lee had not invoked his rights under the European Convention of Human rights.
Same-sex marriage was still illegal in Northern Ireland when Lee put in his request with the bakery. Despite the outcome of the dispute, Lee said: “My message supported the campaign for same-sex marriage that was ultimately successful, and I am delighted with that.”