By now, Americans are well aware of the political disputes that can be caused by food. Wedding cakes, in particular, have become a battleground for legal disputes between those who support gay marriage and those who oppose it. Even the humble pizza, far from a staple wedding item, has been dragged into gay marriage controversy in the United States.
Now, the fight over "gay cakes" seems to have spread across the Atlantic, to Northern Ireland. However, the culture wars have gained a twist in their journey across the Atlantic.
The situation in Northern Ireland traces back to a decision by Christian-owned Ashers Baking Company, based in County Antrim, to cancel a request to supply a cake for gay activist Gareth Lee. This led Ireland's Equality Commission to step in, and on Tuesday, a civil court in Belfast ruled that the bakery had discriminated against Lee with its refusal to make the cake.
"The defendants have unlawfully discriminated against the plaintiff on grounds of sexual discrimination," District Judge Isobel Brownlie said in her ruling, according to the Belfast Telegraph. "This is direct discrimination for which there is no justification."
A controversy involving "gay cakes" may sound familiar to American ears, but there's an important distinction to be made here. In the United States, the issue has mostly been about wedding cakes at gay weddings: Consider the 2013 case in Colorado, when a court ruled that Masterpiece Cakeshop was discriminating against a gay couple by refusing to provide a cake for their wedding, or the similar case in Oregon last year. Memories Pizza in Indiana only stoked a nationwide controversy earlier this year when it publicly announced that it would not cater gay weddings due to the owners' religious beliefs.
The case in Northern Ireland, however, was not about a wedding cake. Lee, a gay rights activist, had hoped to use his cake to promote the gay marriage cause, which is legal in the rest of the United Kingdom but still illegal in Northern Ireland. The cake Lee wanted would have the Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie on it, and would have said "Support Gay Marriage.” He was planning to serve it at an event for the 2014 International Day Against Homophobia.
There have been some cases in the United States that touched on similar themes. A Wal-Mart in Nevada provoked a backlash when it refused to provide a cake with the word "gay" on it for a gay-straight male pair going to prom together. This incident did not go to court, however.
One of the more comparable cases that did prompt legal action is that of Azuvar Bakery in Colorado, where a court agreed that the owners did not discriminate against a customer when they refused to make a cake with anti-gay messages. While that customer argued he was discriminated against based on his religion (which would have been illegal in Colorado), the court found that the bakery had refused the case on the grounds of the ideological nature of the message (not illegal).
In Britain there is a quite different concept of freedom of speech, of course, and it may well have affected this case. During the court case in Dublin, Ashers Baking Company had tried to argue that it had not discriminated against Lee because he was gay, and that it was not his personal sexual preference that led the bakery to refuse to make the cake, but the message on the cake. "We happily serve everyone but we cannot promote a cause that goes against what the Bible says about marriage," bakery owner Daniel McArthur said before the judgment on Tuesday, according to Reuters.
The court viewed it differently and ruled that as a commercial enterprise the bakery could not discriminate against a customer because of their own religious beliefs. Some outsiders struggle to see it that way: As Padraig Reidy put it at the Telegraph:
For me, the case was not simply one of straightforward homophobia. Refusing to write a message fundamentally at odds with one’s beliefs is different from, say, refusing a couple a bed in a B&B: it is to involve people in an argument rather than simply request that they act as disinterested providers. If Ashers had simply refused to sell any cake at all to Mr Lee or any other LGBT person, then that would be an obvious act of discrimination.
To make things even more complicated, the ruling also fits into the controversial politics of gay marriage of Northern Ireland, where the Democratic Unionist Party, a socially conservative unionist party with strong links to Protestant churches, recently blocked a plan to legalize gay marriage in Northern Ireland (the Republic of Ireland will host a referendum on gay marriage this week). As Reidy argues, the latest court decision may mean that in Northern Ireland "refusing to write an equal marriage slogan on a cake is against equality, while equal marriage itself is illegal."
And while the court may have ruled against Ashers Baking Company, it seems unlikely that this issue has been settled. The bakery is reported to be considering an appeal, and the DUP is expected to push for a so-called "conscience clause" that would allow religious businesses some exemptions from anti-discrimination laws.