The case of Lee v Ashers Baking Company centred around the bakery’s refusal to supply a cake iced with the message ‘Support Gay Marriage’, which had been ordered by Mr Lee. The bakery’s Christian owners refused to bake the cake due to their religious beliefs. Mr Lee brought a claim against the bakery on grounds of both sexual orientation and political beliefs. His case succeeded at first instance and before the Northern Irish Court of Appeal. However, the Supreme Court overruled those decisions.
The Supreme Court held that the reason for the treatment received by Mr Lee was due to the message he wanted on the cake, not because of his sexual orientation: that was irrelevant to their decision. It was thus not direct discrimination in the ordinary sense. The Supreme Court was also not satisfied that this was associative direct discrimination, i.e. because Mr Lee was likely to associate with the gay community. For associative discrimination to succeed there needed to be an association with particular persons and discrimination due to that association, and that was absent in this case.
In considering the discrimination claim based on political opinion (which is a protected characteristic in Northern Ireland) the Court had regard to the need to read the legislation in a manner compatible with the right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression under Articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court felt that the legislation should not be read in such a way as to compel a service provider to express a message with which they disagree, unless justification is shown for doing so.