LONDON — A Christian-owned bakery in Northern Ireland lost its bid Monday to overturn a discrimination ruling against its refusal to make a Sesame Street-themed “gay cake.”
The Ashers Baking Company contested a 2015 ruling that found that it was in breach of equality legislation for refusing an order by Gareth Lee, a gay rights activist.
Lee asked the baker for a cake decorated with an image of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street and the words “Support Gay Marriage” written on it.
He paid for the cake, which was for a private event marking International Day Against Homophobia, but was later told that the order was canceled because the bakery was a “Christian business.” His money was refunded.
Appeal Court judges in Belfast dismissed arguments that the bakers would be promoting a change to the region’s gay marriage law by baking the cake.
"The fact that a baker provides a cake for a particular team or portrays witches on a Halloween cake does not indicate any support for either," they said in their ruling.
Shortly after the ruling was published, the hashtag #gaycake was trending on social media in Britain.
Gay marriage is a subject of intense political debate in Northern Ireland, the only nation in the United Kingdom where it is still illegal. Last year, Ireland made international headlines by becoming the first country to legalize gay marriage by popular vote.
Polls show there is popular support for gay marriage in Northern Ireland — an Ipsos MORI poll this summer found support at 70 percent — but legislatures have not lifted the ban.
“We remain behind the rest of the U.K. and Ireland,” said John O’Doherty, director of the Rainbow Project, a gay and lesbian support group based in Northern Ireland. He noted that while the public overwhelmingly supports same-sex marriage, the “biggest barriers” are political.
Over the last four years, the Northern Ireland assembly has debated the subject of gay marriage five times. After the last debate in 2015, the assembly narrowly voted in favor of gay marriage, but the socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest political party in Northern Ireland, used a legislative power-sharing mechanism to block the change in law.
The DUP supported the bakery’s right to decline to make the cake, and it attempted to introduce legislation that would exempt religious groups from doing business with people if the transaction violated their religious beliefs.
Speaking outside the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast, the bakery’s general manager, Daniel McArthur, said he was "extremely” disappointed with the ruling. “We are being told that we have to promote the message even if it’s against our conscience,” he said.
"If equality law means people can be punished for politely refusing to support other people's causes, then equality law needs to change," he said.
At a separate news conference, Lee, the activist who placed the order for the cake, said: “I'm relieved but also very grateful.”
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