[Thanks to Gareth Walls of A&L Goodbody NI for preparing this case summary]
Is a gay customer's rights to access goods and services more protected than the service provider's religious belief?
Yes, held the County Court for Northern Ireland, delivering judgement this morning in the much debated and politicised Ashers Bakery case.
The Bakery had been sued following the manager's decision to cancel an order for a cake with an image and slogan in support of gay marriage. The customer, whose case was backed by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, complained that the bakery should not be permitted to refuse service on the grounds of sexual orientation. The bakery argued that it was not discriminating against the customer because of their sexuality but because of the message on the cake.
In her judgment, Judge Brownlie found that two directors of the bakery were guilty of direct discrimination for which there could be no justification, and breaches of regulation 5 of the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006 and Article 3 of the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 in their failure to provide goods and services to an individual on the grounds of their sexual orientation and political opinion.
The judge also confirmed that as the bakery was a purely commercial venture, the directors were not permitted to rely on the statutory exemption for organisations in relation to religious belief (pursuant to regulation 16) – highlighting that there was no reference to furthering religious values within the bakery's Memorandum and Articles of Association. The 'Gay Cake' row has prompted a proposal to include a so called 'conscience clause' in equality legislation – a move which has already attracted political input from Westminster.