Belfast Telegraph

Ashers cake case 'could run on for four years in Europe'

Tricky case: Jeffrey Dudgeon
Tricky case: Jeffrey Dudgeon
Ralph Hewitt

By Ralph Hewitt

A former Belfast city councillor who overturned the law in Northern Ireland that criminalised male homosexuality at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) believes the Ashers cake case could continue for another four years.

Five years ago the Belfast bakery refused to make a cake with the slogan 'Support Gay Marriage', and after two lower courts backed complainant Gareth Lee's claim of discrimination, the Supreme Court overturned the decision in favour of the bakery's Christian owners, Daniel and Amy McArthur, in 2018.

Mr Lee is now taking his case, which will be against the state and not the McArthurs, to the ECHR.

In 1981, Jeffrey Dudgeon argued in the Strasbourg court that the law that criminalised male homosexuality in Northern Ireland contravened the European Convention on Human Rights.

The court ruled in his favour and the law was changed, bringing the region into line with the rest of the UK. However, while the law was changed a year after the 1981 ruling, Mr Dudgeon began proceedings in 1975.

The former Ulster Unionist councillor said that unless Mr Lee's case is fast-tracked by the ECHR, the dispute could rumble on for another four years.

He said it is "actually quite easy" to start ECHR proceedings, "it's just a question of putting the papers in".

Mr Dudgeon described the case as "tricky" for the ECHR as they will be reviewing a decision that was made by the UK's highest court. And while he believes the Supreme Court's judgment was "reasonable", doubts crept in as he thought the case was much broader than freedom of expression versus discrimination. "The discrimination aspect seemed to be thrown out entirely," he added.

Meanwhile, human rights and LGBT campaigner Peter Tatchell, who backed the Supreme Court's ruling on the grounds of freedom of expression, said that while he sympathises with Mr Lee and the LGBT movement in Northern Ireland, the cake case is "very different".

"Very rightly they want justice but I think this case is very different from employment discrimination, criminalisation and violent assaults against LGBT+ people," he said. "I believe that the case against Ashers was misplaced from the outset. They should have been prosecuted for false advertising.

"They promised to decorate a cake with whatever message a customer wanted. Their refusal to decorate Gareth's cake with the message 'Support Gay Marriage' was a violation of a legal contract." Mr Tatchell said while he is against Ashers Bakery's opposition to marriage equality, no one should be compelled by law to facilitate an idea they do not agree with.

The court battles to date have cost a total of £500,000 - half paid out by the Equality Commission on behalf of Mr Lee and half by the Christian Institute to fund the McArthurs' appeal.

The Christian Institute described the challenge to the Supreme Court as an "attack on freedom of expression and belief".

Deputy director Simon Calvert added: "I'm surprised and a little disappointed that anyone would want to overturn a ruling that protects gay business owners from being forced to promote views they don't share, just as much as it protects Christian business owners, and I hope the Government will robustly defend the current law."

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