The Equality Commission of Northern Ireland is threatening to take action against a bakery that refused to bake a Sesame Street themed cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan. This has the potential to turn into one of those conscience v equality debates that are always so uplifting and productive and a catholic priest has already threatened to disengage from groups representing the gay community unless they acknowledge the bakery’s right to freedom of expression.
This is the sort of story where your initial reaction can be conditioned by your political / religious / philosophical standpoint. I want to get away from that and take as objective a look as possible at whether what has happened can actually be discrimination.
So at the outset I should say that I am very much in favour of equal marriage. I have no religious affiliation, but I am a big fan of Sesame street and I think that Bert and Ernie make a lovely couple. I know the programme’s makers have rubbished the idea that they have any sort of sexual relationship, and it seems to me that Ernie is more interested in his rubber duckie than Bert = but I for one would be delighted if they decided to tie the knot.
So in the argument between a bakery and customer over the decorating a a cake so that it has a pro-gay marriage message, all my natural sympathies are with the customer. But that does not mean that what the bakery did was illegal. The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland however seem convinced that it is – so lets try to pick that apart.
Is it discriminatory for the bakery to refuse to make this cake?
If a baker refuses to bake a cake for a gay customer then of course that is direct discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation – but I don’t see any suggestion of that here. The baker would refuse to bake this cake whatever the sexual orientation of the customer. The more subtle question is whether the refusal to bake the cake can still be seen as being on the ‘grounds of’ sexual orientation in some wider sense. But how can it be? The baker’s objection is to the decoration of the cake and the decoration is not specifically about sexual orientation. An objection to gay marriage is not in itself an objection to sexual orientation. I just don’t see how refusing to bake this cake in the circumstances described can amount to direct discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.
For completeness we should also consider indirect discrimination. But I really think this isn’t an indirect discrimination sort of case. Nevertheless suppose we say that the baker is applying a “provision criterion or practice” of refusing to make cakes promoting gay marriage. Does that cause a particular disadvantage to gay people? Unfortunately I have no statistical data on how many gay people are in the market for cakes decorated with a pro-gay marriage design. I suspect that even among the more politically active sections of the gay community are not greatly disadvantaged by having a limited choice of baker when they want to order cakes decorated in this way.
Even if you could show the requisite disadvantage there would then be the question of justification. Does the baker have a legitimate aim in not baking the cake? I think being true to their religious principles probably fits the bill. As for proportionality we weight the discriminatory impact against the needs of the baker to achieve that aim. I think the fact that they were able to get the cake from a different baker helps show that the disadvantage was not that great. I would think the justification argument would stand a good chance.
Political belief in Northern Ireland
That covers sexual orientation discrimination – but we must also consider discrimination based on political belief. In Northern Ireland this is covered by the Fair Employment and Treatment Order from 1998. Note that this covers religious belief and political belief – we do not have to worry about whether a belief is ‘philosophical’ as we do in GB.
Support for gay marriage is certainly a political opinion, but the baker’s refusal to make the cake was not on the grounds of the political opinion of the customer or any other person. The baker simply refused to make a product that expressed a political opinion he strongly disagreed with. Is that enough? I generally only argue human rights as a last resort, but surely there is a freedom of expression point here?
This is not like the Bull v Hall cases where hotel owners refused to allow gay couples to occupy rooms available to the public at large. In this case a business owner is simply refusing to make a particular product that he finds distasteful. Surely he must be allowed to do that?
I accept of course that we need to bear in mind the different context applying to political belief in Northern Ireland. I don’t hold myself out as an expert on the Fair Employment and Treatment regime, so I pose the following question quite genuinely – could a printer from a nationalist background refuse to print union jack posters with the slogan “God Save the Queen”? If anyone knows whether this sort of issue has been dealt with by previous case law in Northern Ireland, I’d be really interested to hear about it.
If the issue of whether you can force a service provider to produce something conflicting with its religious beliefs hasn’t been dealt with before, then I’m not sure that the Bert and Ernie cake is quite the test case I would go for.
Not every bad thing has to be unlawful
On the whole however, I think that any legal action against the bakery faces some serious obstacles. So why is the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland coming on so strong? It seems they have written a detailed letter to the bakery setting out the basis for their claim. I have not seen that – though I would certainly like to.
I do not dismiss any discrimination lightly. I imagine that it was very upsetting for these customers to have been turned away when they tried to get their cake made. I am on their side and strongly disagree with the decision the baker took. But just because I think the baker was wrong does not mean that what they did amounted to discrimination. On balance I think I would advise the Commission to let this one go.
This post was brought to you today by the letters N and I – and by the number 2.