Activist Loses 8-Year Court Battle Over Bakery's Refusal to Provide Pro-Gay Marriage Cake

The European Court of Human Rights said on Thursday it will not hear a high-profile discrimination case involving pro-gay-marriage cakes and cartoon characters.

The court ruled it does not find the case involving activist Gareth Lee and the Ashers Baking Co. admissible. It claimed that Lee did "exhaust domestic remedies" after having his order for a cake be refused by the company because it would have had Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie and the phrase "Support Gay Marriage" on it.

"The supreme court found on the facts of the case that the applicant was not treated differently on account of his real or perceived sexual orientation, but rather that the refusal to supply the cake was because of the defendants' religious objection to gay marriage," the court wrote in its decision. "What was principally at issue, therefore, was not the effect on the applicant's private life or his freedom to hold or express his opinions or beliefs, but rather whether Ashers bakery was required to produce a cake expressing the applicant's political support for gay marriage."

Lee expressed dismay at the verdict, saying that it was only determined on a technicality. He maintained that the refusal of the cake order violated his freedom of expression, which he said: "must equally apply to lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people." It is unknown whether or not he plans to appeal.

Pride flag
A Northern Ireland activist will not have his case be heard at the European Court of Human Rights after a bakery refused to bake a pro-gay cake in 2014. Pictured, a stock image of a pride flag. Zakharova Elena/Getty

Lee originally ordered the cake to support a campaign to allow same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. The campaign succeeded when Britain's Parliament stepped in to bring the region into line with the rest of the country. Two women who tied the knot in February 2020 became the first gay couple to wed in Northern Ireland.

Britain's Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that the bakery's refusal to make the cake Lee ordered did not amount to discrimination, reversing a lower court's ruling.

Lee then took his case to the Strasbourg, France-based human rights court, arguing that the U.K. Supreme Court decision breached the European Convention on Human Rights.

In a written ruling, the rights court said it could not rule because Lee had not raised the convention in his U.K. court actions.

"Because he had failed to exhaust domestic remedies, the application was inadmissible," the Court of Human Rights said.

LGBTQ support group the Rainbow Project called the ruling disappointing.

"When a commercial business is providing services to the public, they cannot discriminate against their customers or clients on any grounds protected by equality law," John O'Doherty, the group's director, said.

He said the 2018 U.K. Supreme Court ruling created legal uncertainty throughout the country.

"Unfortunately, with today's decision, that uncertainty will remain," he said.

The Christian Institute, which had backed the legal fight of the McArthur family that runs Ashers Baking Co., welcomed the ruling, which a spokesman called "good news for free speech, good news for Christians, and good news for the McArthurs."

"The UK Supreme Court engaged at length with the human rights arguments in this case and upheld the McArthurs' rights to freedom of expression and religion," spokesman Simon Calvert said."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.