The Belfast-based bakers had declined to produce a cake with the slogan, “Support Gay Marriage”. Five justices at the UK’s highest court allowed their challenge in a unanimous ruling in London.
The legal action was originally brought by Gareth Lee, a gay rights activist who claimed he had been the victim of discrimination by the McArthur family, who run Ashers bakery.
He initially won his case in the county court and then at the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal, but the McArthurs challenged the rulings at a Supreme Court hearing in Belfast in May.
Speaking outside court after yesterday’s ruling, the bakery’s general manager, Daniel McArthur, said he was “delighted and relieved”.
He said: “We always knew we hadn’t done anything wrong in turning down this order.
“We’re particularly pleased the Supreme Court emphatically accepted what we’ve said all along – we did not turn down this order because of the person who made it, but because of the message itself. I know a lot of people will be glad to hear this ruling today, because this ruling protects freedom of speech and freedom of conscience for everyone.”
The controversy arose when Mr Lee, a member of the gay advocacy group QueerSpace, ordered a £36.50 cake in 2014 featuring puppet characters from the children’s TV series Sesame Street. He paid in advance but the bakery later phoned to say the cake could not be made because of the message requested.
Mr Lee, who was supported by Northern Ireland’s Equality Commission, said after the ruling: “To me, this was never about a campaign or a statement. All I wanted was to order a cake in a shop that sold cakes to order.
“I paid my money, my money was taken and a few days later it was refused. That made me feel like a second-class citizen.
“I’m concerned not just for the implications for myself and other gay people, but for every single one of us.”
In a statement announcing the court’s decision, its president, Lady Hale, said the McArthur family held the religious belief that “the only form of marriage consistent with the Bible and acceptable to God is between a man and a woman”.
She said: “As to Mr Lee’s claim based on sexual discrimination, the bakers did not refuse to fulfil his order because of his sexual orientation. They would have refused to make such a cake for any customer, irrespective of their sexual orientation.
“Their objection was to the message on the cake, not to the personal characteristics of Mr Lee or of anyone else with whom he was associated.
“The message on the cake would not just be for the benefit of gay people – but also for their families and friends and anyone who recognises the social benefits which the commitment involved in gay marriage can bring.”
She added later: “This conclusion is not in any way to diminish the need to protect gay people and people who support gay marriage from discrimination.
“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, religion or belief. But that is not what happened in this case.”
The court also found that Mr Lee had no claim against Ashers on the grounds of religious belief or political opinion, holding that no-one should be “forced to have or express a political opinion in which he does not believe”.