BRITAIN'S top judges have reaffirmed the principle that businesses must serve all customers, regardless of sexual orientation, gender, race or creed. But even as they did so, they delivered a sharp rebuff to a public body which claimed that very principle had been violated by a Christian-owned bakery in Belfast.
The Supreme Court on October 10th accepted the bakers' contention that they were simply acting in line with their beliefs, rather than displaying personal hostility, when they declined an order for a cake that would have displayed the words "Support Gay Marriage" above two characters from Sesame Street, a television show. The cake would have been used for an event marking an "International Day against Homophobia".
The ruling marks the climax of a four-year legal battle in which Gareth Lee, a gay-rights activist, argued that he suffered illegal discrimination when his order was turned away. He was successful in the earlier rounds of his case, which was backed by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, an agency funded by the tax-payer whose jobs include the stamping out of religious discrimination, which used to be a big problem.
Daniel and Amy McArthur (pictured), who run the successful chain of shops, had argued that their own entitlement to deeply held beliefs would have been "extinguished" if they were forced to propagate a message that offended their conscience. They insisted that they were more than happy to provide Mr Lee with any other service; but the particular message which this client requested was one they would have refused regardless of who asked for it.
The Supreme Court emphatically agreed. Its president, Lady Hale, observed that it was "deeply humiliating" to deny someone service on grounds of legally protected characteristics, which include sexuality. "But that is not what happened in this case," she insisted, countermanding the Northern Irish courts which had vindicated Mr Lee.
The closely watched case has drawn a mixed reaction among campaigners for gay rights. Peter Tatchell, one of Britain's best-known campaigners for gay causes, supported the couple on grounds that it was "profoundly authoritarian" to force people to disseminate statements running counter to their beliefs. The campaigner said he held this view in spite of his own strong view that Northern Ireland should fall into line with other parts of the British Isles and allow same-sex marriage.
In Mr Tatchell's opinion, the free-speech dimension made this story different from other cases where businesses have been prosecuted for discrimination against gay people: for example, hotels which have turned away same-sex couples.
The Ashers story will also be compared and contrasted with the many cases in the United States where florists or bakers been taken to court after refusing on religious grounds to provide services for gay weddings. In June, America's Supreme Court vindicated another a baker in Colorado who had refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.
But in that case, too, the judges stressed the specificity of the case and insisted they were not issuing a licence to discriminate. The American judges thought the Colorado baker had been treated maliciously by the civil-rights commission in his state, but they accepted the legitimacy of laws protecting gay people from discrimination by businesses.
In every case of this kind, people fear or hope for a precedent. What they often get instead is a reminder that things are never simple when two freedoms clash.
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