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'Gay Cake' Case Deemed Inadmissible by European Court of Human Rights

on Friday, 14 January 2022.

The famous discrimination case involving an attempt to purchase a cake (widely known as the 'gay cake' case but more correctly referred to as Lee v Ashers Bakery Company) has been deemed inadmissible by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).


In May 2014, Mr Lee ordered a cake from Ashers Baking Company in Northern Ireland to celebrate the end of anti-homophobic week. The cake was to be decorated with a logo of pro-LGBT organisation, Queerspace, and the caption 'Support Gay Marriage'. The bakery refused to provide the cake, stating it was a 'Christian business'.

Mr Lee brought proceedings in the county court for discrimination on the grounds of his sexual orientation, and his political opinion (namely his support of gay marriage). Both claims were upheld at first instance. The bakery appealed unsuccessfully to the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal and then to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court allowed the appeal, holding that the bakery refused to provide the cake because of the message Mr Lee asked for, rather than because of Mr Lee's sexual orientation or political opinion. In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court took into account the bakery owners' right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and freedom of expression.

It held the bakery had not discriminated against Mr Lee on the grounds of his sexual orientation or his political opinion, but rather because, as a Christian bakery, it would have objected to being asked to put any message onto a cake that did not align with the owners' views. For example, a request to decorate a cake with an Atheist message would also have been rejected.

What Was the ECHR Decision?

Mr Lee lodged an application to the ECHR relying on Article 8 - right to respect for private life, Article 9 - freedom of thought conscience and religion, Article 10 - freedom of expression, and Article 14 - prohibition of discrimination of the European Convention on Human Rights.

However, the ECHR declared the application inadmissible because Mr Lee had not invoked his Convention Rights at any point during the domestic proceedings. 

What Can Be Learnt?

The Lee v Ashers Bakery Company case is understandably emotive, and the ECHR decision has been described by some critics as a 'missed opportunity' to address the substantive issues at stake. Whilst it is not an employment case, it highlights the complexity of discrimination issues when balancing different protected characteristics against one another, and against any wider ethos of the organisation.

For more information on issues of discrimination, please contact Nick Murrell in our Employment Law team on 0117 314 5627, or complete the form below.

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