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Asher’s bakery: an analysis of major UK legal decision

Church & State

Asher’s bakery: an analysis of major UK legal decision

An expert analysis of UK legal decision by religious freedom agency, Barnabas Fund

Daniel and Amy McArthur. Photo Credit: Christian Institute

In a groundbreaking case the UK Supreme Court has recently ruled that it is a basic human right not to be compelled to promote beliefs which one does not hold.

This is an enormously important restatement of an historic principle of freedom of religion, which has too often been lost sight of by many western governments. For a short summary of the ruling by one of the defence lawyers see HERE. 

The UK Supreme Court recently ruled that Christian owned Ashers Bakery in Northern Ireland was legally entitled to refuse to create a cake with the message “support gay marriage”. The owners of Ashers had been put through a four year court ordeal after a gay rights campaigner tried to force them to bake the cake in 2014. This is a hugely important case which has attracted interest around the world.

Who was the victim?

Although the case was decided on strictly legal issues, there is a very real question as to whether a Christian owned business was deliberately targeted by a gay rights activist,

On 29 April 2014 the Northern Ireland Assembly for the third time in 18 months rejected an attempt to redefine marriage to include same sex relationships. Gay rights groups in Northern Ireland blamed Christians for this. A few days later a gay rights activist walked into Ashers bakery and tried to place an order for a cake with the slogan “support gay marriage”, the order was subsequently refused.

Ashers makes clear on its website that its name comes from the Bible– implying that they are a Christian owned business. The incident bore significant similarities to two well publicised cases in the USA where gay rights activists had attempted to force Christian owned bakeries to promote LGBT beliefs.

When the order was declined the gay rights activist sued the Christian owned bakery for discrimination, with the support of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI), which had been campaigning for the redefinition of marriage, despite being legally required to support people regardless of their political or religious beliefs. The ECNI then paid the £250,000 legal costs of the gay rights activist from taxpayers money, which resulted in Ashers facing a £200,000 legal bill simply to defend themselves, a sum which could easily force a small or medium sizes company into bankruptcy. The publicity generated by the ECNI taking up the case then led to a hate campaign against Ashers which included serious physical violence against the buildings and threats of arson and murder.

Why this judgement matters

This ruling is important for two reasons:

  1. Had this case gone against Ashers bakery – it would in effect have created an open door for LGBT extremists to force Christian owned business such as Ashers to either promote ideological beliefs that conflicted with their Christian beliefs or cease trading.

Although there are protections for freedom of religion in anti-discrimination law, these only apply to people NOT businesses. The Supreme Court ruled that although the company does not have such rights, the owners of the company do have a right to freedom of religion which needs to be protected.

  1. Articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) explicitly state that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and freedom of expression.

The Supreme Court judges in effect said, this has to be interpreted to mean that everyone also has the right NOT to be required to manifest a particular belief or be required to promote a particular opinion.

This is actually restating an historic, though sadly somewhat neglected aspect of freedom of religion – the right not to be required to affirm particular beliefs.

  • Under laws passed in Elizabethan times (1558-1603) everyone was required to attend weekly services at their local parish church. In Elizabethan times six ‘separatists’ were executed for this ‘crime’ refusing to do so.
  • These laws were still being enforced a century later. Between 1660-88 an astonishing 15,000 Quakers were imprisoned for refusing to attend Anglican services and holding their own meetings instead. 450 of them died in prison.
  • In the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth centuries various ‘Test Acts’ required people to affirm religious beliefs that were then regarded as ‘politically correct’ or be excluded from professions such as teachers, lawyers and public sector posts such as army officers, magistrates, and mayors. The Supreme Court ruling actually alluded to this – referring to recent cases in San Marino and the Bahamas where those holding public posts were required to affirm particular religious beliefs. It explicitly rejected this as incompatible with the human right to freedom of religion or belief.