The European Court of Human Rights on Thursday rejected a case brought over a UK bakery's refusal to bake a gay wedding cake, saying British legal options had to be exhausted before it would get involved.
Plaintiff Gareth Lee, who lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 2014 ordered a cake for a gay activist event scheduled shortly after the province's assembly rejected legalizing same-sex marriage for the third time.
He asked a Christian bakery to adorn the cake with an image of bedroom-sharing characters Bert and Ernie from the US television show "Sesame Street" and add the slogan "Support Gay Marriage".
The Ashers Baking Company, which takes its name from an Old Testament figure, took the order but then declined to meet the special requests, apologized and refunded Lee's money.
Lee, who is British and an activist at the advocacy group Queer Space, filed a legal complaint against the bakery that was taken up by Northern Ireland's Equality Commission, which oversees the implementation of anti-discrimination laws.
A local court found the bakery guilty of discrimination after a high-profile inquiry in the province that only allowed same-sex marriage only in 2020, the last part of the United Kingdom to do so.
That decision was upheld by an appeals court, but then overturned by the UK's Supreme Court, which said that the bakery owners had not refused to serve Lee because he was gay, but because they objected to promoting a message that they profoundly disagreed with.
In 2019, Lee took his case to the European Court (ECHR), arguing that the Supreme Court's decision interfered with several of his rights included in the European Convention on Human Rights.
But the ECHR refused to take the case, saying Lee should have brought his arguments based on the Convention to domestic UK courts first.
"The applicant had not invoked his Convention rights at any point in the domestic proceedings," instead relying on domestic law alone, the ECHR observed.
He thereby "deprived the domestic courts of the opportunity to address any Convention issues raised, instead asking the Court to usurp the role of the domestic courts," it said in a statement.
"Because he had failed to exhaust domestic remedies, the application was inadmissible," it said.
In reaction, Lee said that he was "most frustrated that the core issues did not get fairly analyzed and adjudicated upon because of a technicality".
His lawyer, Ciaran Moynagh, said the substantive issues included in the application to the ECHR had remained unaddressed.
This, the lawyer said, was "a missed opportunity", adding that he and his client would now consider launching a fresh domestic case.
The Christian Institute, which had supported the bakery in its fight against Lee, welcomed the decision, calling it "a relief".
"I'm surprised 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," said Simon Calvert, the Institute's deputy director for public affairs.
The ECHR's decision was "good news for free speech" and "good news for Christians", he said.