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Religious Freedom Challenged In The U.K.

Last month, the United Kingdom Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Christian-owned bakery that refused to bake a cake promoting same-sex marriage.1  The Court unanimously held that the bakery did not discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation and that Articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights protected the bakery owners’ freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. 

Background

In 2014, Asher’s Baking Co. in Northern Ireland declined to bake a cake with the message “Support Gay Marriage” on it. The bakers argued that they should not be forced to put messages that violated their Christian beliefs on their work. The plaintiff, who is gay, filed a lawsuit against the bakery claiming that he was discriminated against because of his sexual orientation. The case was heard at a Belfast county court and a court of appeal before it was heard by the United Kingdom Supreme Court. Both lower courts held that the bakery discriminated against the plaintiff because of his sexual orientation. 

The Decision

In this unanimous decision by the United Kingdom Supreme Court, the judges found that there was no discrimination by the bakery based on the plaintiff’s sexual orientation. It held, in part, that the bakery’s actions were not motivated by the plaintiff’s sexual orientation, but instead by the message that he wanted to communicate. The bakery would have objected to baking the cake whether it was a straight person or a gay person that was requesting it. The message was what the bakery found objectionable, not the person.

European Convention on Human Rights 

The Court went on to say that if the bakery were forced to bake a cake with this message that it would violate the rights of the bakers under the European Convention on Human Rights. Articles 9 and 10 protect the freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. The Court held that according to this protection, no one should be forced to express an opinion that he or she does not believe in. 

The Future

This decision is being called a victory for free speech. What happens next is still uncertain. The plaintiffs may choose to appeal the decision of the United Kingdom Supreme Court to the European Court of Human Rights. If so, the ultimate legal authority on this matter will rest there.

What This Means for Religious Freedom in the United States

Ultimately, this case won’t control the legal debate on religious freedom here in the United States because the United States is not legally bound by the authority of either the United Kingdom Supreme Court or the European Convention on Human Rights. That said, it is hard to imagine the Justices of the United States Supreme Court not taking note of the ruling and its reasoning next time they consider religious liberty. The case is very similar to the recent Masterpiece case in the U.S., where the baker also argued that he should not have to express messages he disagrees with (and is still fighting that battle with a new case in Colorado). In the Colorado case and other parallel cases, the businesses have not refused to serve individuals, but have refused to create works for particular events. So the central question of compelled artistic or personal expression is an important one.

This case is especially interesting because it takes the religious freedom of the business person out of the wedding area only and applies it to the everyday work of a religious business person. It raises the question of whether true pluralism should compel people to express a popular viewpoint, or whether they can lose licenses and businesses for refusing to do so. To that degree, this case is making arguments that Justices on the Supreme Court may consider next time a religious freedom case is brought to the Court. 

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1 Lee v Ashers Baking company Ltf & Ors [2018] UKSC 49.
Featured Image: "Vanilla Layer and Buttercream Cake" by Alexandra Golovac on Unsplash.
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