The long-running ‘gay cake’ case took another turn today as the European Court of Human Rights ruled applicant Gareth Lee’s case inadmissible.
In 2014, Lee tried to order a £36.50 cake at Ashers bakery in Belfast inscribed with the words “Support Gay Marriage” but the company refused to comply as the order was at odds with its Christian beliefs. Same-sex marriage was still illegal in Northern Ireland at the time.
Although Lee initially succeeded with his case in Northern Ireland, alleging the bakery had discriminated against him on grounds of his sexual orientation and political beliefs, the Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that Ashers’ action was not discriminatory, contrary to verdicts arrived at in lower courts.
Now the ECHR has ruled that Lee “failed to exhaust domestic remedies” available to him in the UK courts. Lee had argued to the ECHR that the Supreme Court had “failed to give appropriate weight” to him under the European Convention of Human Rights. The ECHR added that Lee had not invoked his rights under the Convention “at any point in the domestic proceedings” in the UK courts.
‘Gay cake’ implications
The European judges stated: “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 added.
After the judgment, Lee said he “had very much hoped for a different outcome”.
“Everyone has freedom of expression and it must equally apply to lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people,” he added.
“I am most frustrated that the core issues did not get fairly analysed and adjudicated upon because of a technicality.
The planned cake at the centre of the legal cases was to feature an image of Bert and Ernie, two characters from the TV show Sesame Street, and the logo of the campaign group QueerSpace.
Lee complained about Ashers’ refusal to fulfil the order to the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, who supported him in taking a discrimination case against the bakery.
Ashers argued they had not turned Lee’s custom away because he was gay, but because he had asked them to produce something that was contrary to their religious beliefs.
The European Court of Human Rights is the court of law of the Council of Europe, which was founded in the aftermath of the Second World War to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe. It is separate from the EU and has 47 signatories, with one judge appointed from each of the 47 countries.
Individuals can take cases against states, alleging that the state violated their rights under the convention.