The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom handed a legal victory to Daniel and Amy McArthur last week, four years after the Belfast bakers refused to make a cake with the inscription “Support Gay Marriage” for customer Gareth Lee.
Moments after the unanimous ruling, the Northern Irish couple smiled and expressed their delight to reporters. “I want to start by thanking God,” Daniel McArthur said. “He is our rock, and all of His ways are just. We are delighted and relieved at today’s ruling. We always knew we hadn’t done anything wrong in turning down this order.”
In 2014, Lee walked into the McArthurs’ business, Ashers Baking Company, and asked them to design a cake he wanted to take to a party hosted by the LGBT group QueerSpace. The design featured Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie, the QueerSpace logo, and the phrase, “Support Gay Marriage.”
Amy McArthur initially took the order, and Lee paid for the cake.
Over the weekend, the McArthurs decided creating the cake would violate their conscience. They refunded Lee’s money, and he had the cake made at a different bakery.
Lee complained to the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI), which funded his legal battle against the McArthurs. A judge slapped the couple with a 500 pound fine, and they lost every court appeal since then until Wednesday.
The case bears some resemblance to the June U.S. Supreme Court decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission but with one key difference. The U.K. ruling only protected bakers from writing words they disagree with on the cake, while the U.S. ruling, which involved a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, could be interpreted more broadly.
“Whatever the exact design, it celebrates a wedding, and if the wedding cake is made for a same-sex couple it celebrates a same-sex wedding,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in his opinion in the Masterpiece ruling.
It’s unclear whether the Ashers ruling would apply to a baker who declined to make a cake that didn’t have any writing on it for a same-sex wedding.
Still, the Ashers case was a win for freedom of speech.
“It hinged on the words,” said Ciarán Kelly, deputy communications director with the Christian Institute, the group that defended the McArthurs. “The McArthurs believe in a Biblical view of marriage, so they didn’t want to express the view which was being requested, which was ‘Support Gay Marriage.’”
Peter Tatchell, a gay activist who initially condemned the McArthurs but later changed his mind, applauded the ruling since it would also protect people from promoting anti-gay messages. “Although I profoundly disagree with Ashers’ opposition to marriage equality, in a free society neither they nor anyone else should be forced to facilitate a political idea that they oppose,” he said in a statement.
Paul Coleman, executive director of ADF International, the international arm of Alliance Defending Freedom, the group that defended Colorado baker Jack Phillips in the Masterpiece case, called the U.K. ruling on Thursday “crystal clear,” adding, “Today’s win benefits all private citizens and helps ensure that the government may not force them to create messages with which they fundamentally disagree.”
Susie Leafe, director of operations of GAFCON (Global Anglican Future Conference), an international group that promotes Biblical teaching in the Anglican Church, told me the ruling holds a hidden danger for Christians. It leaves the door open, for instance, for book publishers to turn down books that put forth a traditional view of marriage.
“It will protect people’s freedom to not to have to put forward messages that they don’t believe, which is a good thing,” Leafe said. “As Christians become more and more the minority, it’s possible there will actually need to be Christian printers around to print things.”
The ECNI could still appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, but Kelly told me they probably would not succeed, especially since all five judges on the U.K. high court ruled in favor of the McArthurs.