by Peter Taggart and Don Melvin
Everyone loves Bert and Ernie, right? So what could be controversial about going to a bakery and ordering up a Bert and Ernie cake?
Well, plenty, if the cake is supposed to bear — in addition to the depictions of the two “Sesame Street” characters — the inscription “Support Gay Marriage.”
That is the kind of cake that gay rights activist Gareth Lee ordered in greater Belfast, Northern Ireland, in May 2014 for a function marking the International Day Against Homophobia.
But Lee ordered the cake from the Christian-owned Ashers Baking Co., which refused on the grounds that baking it would conflict with the religious beliefs of the bakery’s owners.
Or, as Bert would say, “Yes I do mind!”
Judge: ‘Business for profit’ is not religious group
Lee, offended, sued.
And on Tuesday, Ashers was found guilty in Belfast County Court of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. The judge said Ashers was a “business for profit” and not a religious group and, while the owners had “genuine, deeply held religious views,” they were not above the law.
Lee had testified that being refused service “left him feeling like a lesser person.” The court awarded him £500 ($775) in damages.
Of course, the case had long since grown into something larger than a simple dispute between a company and a customer.
Lee was supported in his lawsuit by the state-funded Northern Ireland Equality Commission, which has reportedly spent almost £40,000 ($62,000) on the case so far.
And the bakery was backed by the Christian Institute, which says on its website that it exists for “the furtherance and promotion of the Christian religion in the United Kingdom” and “the advancement of education.”
Decision to be appealed
Tuesday’s decision can be appealed to a higher court. And Asher’s general manger, Daniel McArthur, said it would be.
He said the bakery never had an issue with Lee, did not know his sexual orientation and would happily serve everyone.
The issue, McArthur said, was with the cake.
“The ruling suggests that all business owners will have to be willing to promote any cause or campaign no matter how much they disagree with it,” he said.
Same-sex marriage is not legal in Northern Ireland, but it is in the rest of the United Kingdom. Attempts to introduce legislation to legalize it have been blocked by the biggest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Democratic Unionist Party, and other lawmakers.