The story behind the most expensive cake order in UK history

The bakery where it all began.
The bakery where it all began.
Image: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton
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In 2014, gay rights activist Gareth Lee ordered a custom cake for £36.50 ($48). As of today (Oct. 10), the costs related to that transaction exceed £450,000 ($593,000).

As the BBC put it, “It has proved to be the most expensive cake order in UK history.” The steep bill is a result of all the legal fees that the “gay cake” case has incurred over the years. The final ruling came yesterday when all five justices in the UK supreme court decided that the Ashers Baking Company was not guilty of discrimination.

It all began in July 2014 when Ashers in Northern Ireland refused Lee’s request for a cake showing the Sesame Street couple Bert and Ernie with the slogan, “support gay marriage.” (Lee ordered the cake for an event to mark International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia.) Although the order was initially accepted and paid for, the Ashers head office eventually refused to make the cake because it was at odds with the beliefs of the company’s Christian owners. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where same-sex marriage is still illegal.

The controversy continued to develop over the past few years. Lee complained to Northern Ireland’s Equality Commission, which took up the case and sued Ashers (using public funds) on the grounds that the company had discriminated against Lee because of his sexuality. Ashers received legal assistance from the Christian Institute, an evangelical organization, but was found guilty of discrimination in 2015 by a Belfast high court. Ashers lost an appeal to this ruling in October 2016, but took the case to the supreme court. The cost of the case is almost half a million pounds.

The supreme court’s decision was based on the fact that Ashers was not specifically discriminating against Lee. The company had served him previously and said it would continue to do so in the future. Rather, the court ruled, Ashers should not be forced to put messages on its products it doesn’t agree with (and the company would have objected to the message regardless of whom requested it).

“In a nutshell, the objection was to the message and not to any particular person or persons,” judge Brenda Hale wrote in the unanimous decision, NBC reports. “It is deeply humiliating, and an affront to human dignity, to deny someone a service because of that person’s race, gender, disability, sexual orientation or any of the other protected personal characteristics. But that is not what happened in this case.”

Peter Tatchell, a human rights campaigner, told the BBC:

“Although I profoundly disagree with Ashers’ opposition to marriage equality, in a free society neither they nor anyone else should be forced to facilitate a political idea that they oppose… If the original judgement against Ashers had been upheld, it would have meant that a Muslim printer could be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed and a Jewish printer could be forced to publish a book that propagates Holocaust denial.”

Lee, however, said that the ordeal had left him feeling like “a second-class citizen.” He added, “To me, this was never about conscience or a statement. All I wanted to do was to order a cake in a shop.”

The “gay cake case” in the UK is reminiscent of the US Supreme Court ruling in June that a Colorado baker’s decision not to make a wedding cake for a gay couple was within his First Amendment rights. The ruling, like the UK’s, also emphasized the importance of protecting gay rights.