October 31, 2016

Discrimination: Sexual Orientation vs Religious Belief

In the case of Lee v Ashers Baking Co Ltd [2016] NICA 39, the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal considered how to treat competing characteristics protected under anti-discrimination law, namely sexual orientation and religious belief. 

The owners of Ashers Bakery (Owners) refused to fulfill an order for a customer, Mr Lee, for a cake decorated with the caption “Support Gay Marriage”. As devout Christians, the Owners believe that gay marriage is sinful and contrary to their Christian beliefs. They cancelled Mr Lee’s order on those grounds. The Northern Ireland Court of Appeal held that the Owners had directly discriminated against Mr Lee on grounds of sexual orientation. They had cancelled the order because it supported gay marriage which by its nature benefited gay or bisexual couples; they would not have done so if the caption had been in support of heterosexual marriage. The Court further held that although a supplier may refuse to provide a particular service to all customers, it may not refuse to provide the service only to a selection of customers, based on prohibited grounds. As such, the Owners were entitled to refuse to decorate cakes with any religious or political message, but were not permitted to refuse to decorate cakes carrying a particular religious or political message, simply because it conflicted with their personal views.

Whist this is not an employment case, it is relevant for employers who will often need to deal with conflicting protected characteristics in the workplace.

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