On 10th October 2018 the Supreme Court, the highest UK court, delivered its much anticipated judgement Lee v Ashers Baking Co Ltd  UKSC 49.
The story has been well rehearsed – Ashers is a company owned by committed Christians, the McArthurs. Mr Lee was gay and worked for Queerspace. He was an existing customer of the bakery and in May 2014 wished to have the slogan “Support Gay Marriage” iced on a cake he ordered. This was refused and the charge of discrimination commenced, aided by the Equality Commission NI, which sought to test the legal boundaries of discrimination and confirm that Mr Lee had been discriminated against on the grounds of sexual orientation and/or political opinion. Mr Lee succeeded in the County Court and NI Court of Appeal for reasons which were somewhat obscure to lawyer and layman alike.
The Supreme Court’s judgement, however, is a model of clarity. It held, regarding discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, that:
1. This was a case of “direct discrimination or nothing.”
2. Direct discrimination is by definition, treating people differently.
3. The correct comparator was other people, not different messages.
4. The circumstances of any comparison needed to be “the same or not materially different.”
5. Support for gay marriage was not a proxy for any particular sexual orientation, since anyone of any orientation could support it.
Lee v Ashers therefore differed from James v Eastleigh  2AC 751 – free swimming related to differing retirement age for men and women – and Preddy v Bull  UKSC 73 (B&B accommodation only for heterosexual married couples). The complainants in these cases were adversely affected in law, because of a proxy for the protected characteristic.
6. There was no associative discrimination here – evidence of Ashers previously serving gay customers including Mr Lee himself and employing gay staff, all put paid to that.
7. “In a nutshell, the objection was to the message and not to any particular person or persons.”
The Supreme Court made it abundantly clear that in this case, the cause of equality was done “…no favours to seek to extend it beyond its proper scope.”
The Supreme Court also examined discrimination on the grounds of political opinion. It accepted that
1. Support for gay marriage was a political opinion.
2. It pointed out that discrimination can arise irrespective of motive.
3. The legislation was designed to protect those who held an opinion from less favourable treatment, as compared with others who did not hold such an opinion.
4. It was clear that Ashers had previously served Mr Lee in other ways. Likewise they would have refused to ice the cake with this message, irrespective of the political opinion of the person asking for it. The Supreme Court took the view that it was not Mr Lee’s opinions or beliefs which resulted in the refusal of the order, rather:
“The objection was to being required to promote the message on the cake. The less favourable treatment was afforded to the message not the man.”
An interesting aspect of the judgement was how the Supreme Court dealt with the European Convention rights of the McArthur’s who owned Ashers, as opposed to the company itself. It concluded that in order to uphold the qualified ECHR rights of the McArthurs under Article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion) and Article 10 (freedom of expression), the company should not be found liable. This differed from saying that the company had Convention rights.
Rather, to ensure that the McArthurs were not obliged to supply a cake iced with a message with which they profoundly disagreed or indeed be compelled to provide goods facilities or services expressing a message with which they disagreed, unless justification was shown, the Convention rights could be invoked to protect the McArthurs, since to do otherwise would negate their Convention rights.
Significantly the Supreme Court was unanimous in reaching its decision. No dissenting voices confused the issue. Individuals are protected from compelled speech whether in icing, print, or orally. The groupthink mentality has been curtailed at least in the context of offering goods, facilities, and services.
Whether this is a victory for religious or political freedom has already been widely debated. However most commentators agree that the Supreme Court has stood up for freedom of expression, something which unites Baroness Hale, Peter Tatchell and no doubt, supporters of Iona (NI), on a significant area of social policy.
Shortly after she issued the judgement in Preddy v Bull, Baroness Hale gave a lecture at Yale Law School on Religion and Sexual Orientation: the clash of equality rights. She examined the case law on the subject and dealt with criticisms from the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Attorney General of Northern Ireland on how equality law had developed, particularly as it appeared increasingly to sideline religious belief or indeed fail to understand or show sensitivity to it.
Baroness Hale defended the role of the courts by explaining that the Law Commission had dismissed calls to legislate against offending religious feelings. However, she noted in examining Canadian case-law, that provision had been made there for a “reasonable accommodation” defence in dealing with conflicts of rights. She also acknowledged that some Christians did feel a lack of respect for their beliefs and queried whether a more nuanced view would be better.
“I find it hard to believe that the hard line EU law approach to direct discrimination can be sustainable in the long run. But I am not sure how comfortable I would be with the sort of balancing exercise required by the Canadian approach.”
Perhaps in Lee v Ashers we can see the arrival of some much-needed nuance into the conflict between competing rights through the mechanism of freedom of expression.
Although the Ashers have been vindicated in this matter, there will undoubtedly be many more conflicts to come where rights will clash. Freedom of conscience in medical matters such as abortion and euthanasia is one which might benefit in part by this decision but I very much doubt if it will be the last word on conscientious objection.
MARY J LEWIS BL