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09 July 2014

Bert and Ernie - icing on the cake

Bert and Ernie - icing on the cake

A bakery in Northern Ireland was asked to bake and supply a cake with an image of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street with the slogan 'support gay marriage'. The order was placed by the campaign group Queer Space whose logo also featured on the cake design.

The owners of the bakery declined the order and refunded the customer. They support the current law in Northern Ireland which defines marriage as between a man and a woman only. The bakery owners cite orthodox Christian beliefs on marriage, freedom of conscience and freedom of political opinion for their decision. They decided that to make a cake with this message would be tantamount to endorsing the campaign for same sex marriage.

These events are now the subject of a legal claim being brought by the customer. His case is being backed by the Equality Commission in Northern Ireland who allege discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and have threatened court action. The bakery is receiving help to defend the case from The Christian Institute. 

This case clearly has implications far beyond the icing on the cake. Whatever the outcome, there will be consequences for freedom of conscience, religion and political opinion.

This case is not about the rights or wrongs of homosexuality, nor is it about the sexual orientation of customers who order cakes in cake shops. Presumably gay customers have been served all sorts of cakes, breads and treats from this bakery without any question or incident up until now.

Neither is this case about gay people being unable to purchase goods and services. Everyone can walk into this bakery and be served. They can buy cakes and buy messages or images on those cakes to order (good and services).

The issue here is the nature of the message on the cake. The particular message requested was simply not for sale. It wasn't a product offered by this bakery to any customer, gay or straight.

Many supporters of same sex marriage are heterosexual and if a group of them, or indeed the Equality Commission of Northern Ireland itself, had ordered a cake with the same message, the response would presumably have been the same. 

Simply put, there is no discrimination. Everyone was equally unable to buy a cake with a message saying 'support gay marriage' from this bakery, as a point of conscience.

Sexual orientation is a red herring, completely irrelevant to this case. The real issue here is the policing of the personal conscience of the business owners. This case has all the hallmarks of a narrow ideologically driven campaign against genuine diversity. This is incredulous given that the case is being backed by a public body with diversity at the centre of its remit. It has now generated a legal battle between peaceable citizens, each of whom benefit from legal protections under equality law.  

The case raises a few urgent questions for everyone:

  • Does a business only face legal action in the case of refusing to endorse the slogan 'support gay marriage' if the customer is of a minority sexual orientation? If a heterosexual customer ordered the exact same cake and was still refused, would this case still have been brought, and if so, on which grounds?
  • The bakery had previously refused to supply cakes that feature foul language or graphic sexual images. What are the criteria to determine the issues of conscience upon which the bakery is allowed to refuse cakes, and those which it is not?
  • Which messages, political, or otherwise, constitute legitimate grounds for a baker to refuse to put on a cake?
  • Similarly, which other businesses face legal action if they refuse to endorse slogans like 'support gay marriage' in their products? A printer? A newspaper? A florist? A card-maker? Others?
  • Will the Equality and Human Rights Commission for England and Wales clarify the situation for Christian business owners there, where same sex marriage is now legal, who may be faced with similar requests?

You couldn't make this story up - same-sex marriage, Bert and Ernie and a cake. It was always going to make headlines. But beyond the media puns it's clear this case raises some serious questions.