European Court of Human Rights deems Belfast ‘gay cake’ case inadmissible

The seven-year-long legal battle was brought against Christian bakers by LGBTQ+ activist Gareth Lee.

A knife cuts the gay cake as the European Court of Human Rights dismisses the case.
Image: Facebook: Queerspace Belfast

The European Court of Human Rights has thrown out the ‘gay cake’ case, saying that the plaintiff Gareth Lee failed to “exhaust domestic remedies” throughout the duration of the legal battle. Mr Lee opened the case after he felt that he was discriminated against by a Belfast-based bakery when they refused to make a “Support Gay Marriage” cake.

The LGBTQ+ activist involved with Queer Space originally ordered the cake from Ashers in May 2014, with the intention of bringing it to a private function marking International Day Against Homophobia. The dessert was to feature Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie, with the slogan “Support Gay Marriage”.

The order was accepted with Mr Lee paying £36.50, but two days later, the Christian owners called to say they could not proceed with the design due to the message requested. The legal case was launched subsequently with the support of Northern Ireland’s Equality Commission, as Mr Lee alleged discrimination on the grounds of sexuality.

The plaintiff was successful at a 2015 hearing in the county court, and at a 2016 hearing in the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal. These rulings were challenged however by the defendants, Daniel and Amy McArthur, at the Supreme Court in 2018, where five justices ruled unanimously in favour of the bakery owners. 

It was then that Mr Lee referred the ‘gay cake’ case to the European Court of Human Rights, where he has faced a similarly disappointing outcome.

In a written ruling released on Thursday, January 6, the European Court of Human Rights said: “Convention arguments must be raised explicitly or in substance before the domestic authorities. The applicant had not invoked his Convention rights at any point in the domestic proceedings.

“By relying solely on domestic law, the applicant had deprived the domestic courts of the opportunity to address any Convention issues raised, instead asking the court to usurp the role of the domestic courts.

“Because he had failed to exhaust domestic remedies, the application was inadmissible,” it concluded.

Speaking on the ruling, Mr Lee said he had “hoped for a different outcome”.

“Everyone has freedom of expression and it must equally apply to lesbian, gay, bisexual and Trans people. The message on the cake was mine and I paid a company that printed messages on cakes to print my message.”

He continued by saying: “My message supported the campaign for same-sex marriage that was ultimately successful and I am delighted with that. I am most frustrated that the core issues did not get fairly analysed and adjudicated upon because of a technicality.

“None of us should be expected to have to figure out the beliefs of a company’s owners before going into their shop or paying for their services.”

The ‘gay cake’ case ruling by the European Court of Human Rights ends a seven-year-long legal battle between Gareth Lee and the owners of Ashers bakery.

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