The UK Supreme Court has ruled in favour of Ashers, the Belfast bakery owned by evangelical Christians who in 2014 refused to bake a cake featuring a slogan in support of same-sex marriage.
The customer, Gareth Lee, said their action was discriminatory and the bakery was taken to court by the Equality Commission. Ashers was ordered to pay £500 in damages for breaching anti-discrimination laws, a decision upheld by the Court of Appeal.
Now the Supreme Court has ruled in favour of the owners. In a judgment delivered today, Lady Hale said: 'The bakers did not refuse to fulfil [Lee's] 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.
'Accordingly this court holds that there was no discrimination on the ground of the sexual orientation of Mr Lee.'
After the five Supreme Court judges unanimously upheld the appeal, Ashers' general manager Daniel McArthur spoke to gathered media on the steps of the court. He said: 'I want to start by thanking God. He has been with us during the challenges of the last four years. Through the Bible and the support of Christians, he has comforted us and sustained us. He is our rock and all his ways are just.
'We're delighted and relieved at today's ruling. We always knew we hadn't done anything wrong in turning down this order. After more than four years, the Supreme Court has now recognised that and we're very grateful. Grateful to the judges and especially grateful to God.
'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.
"The judges have given a clear signal today. In fact it couldn't be any clearer. Family businesses like ours are free to focus on giving all their customers the best service they can – without being forced to promote other people's campaigns.
'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.
'On behalf of my family can I say thank you to everyone who has supported us or prayed for us through all this.
'I do want to take this opportunity to thank our whole legal team for working so hard for us over the last four years. And also to thank the entire Christian Institute staff for their help and support from the very beginning.
'We want to move on from this now, and I'm sure Mr Lee does too. And let me just finish by saying that he will always be welcome at any of our shops.'
The Evangelical Alliance's UK director Peter Lynas has been campaigning on the issue and told Christian Today the verdict was 'absolutely brilliant news and absolutely the right decision'.
'It's clear the Supreme Court was taking this very seriously,' he said.
The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland said in a statement it was 'disappointed in the judgment given today by the Supreme Court in the case of Lee v Ashers Baking Company Limited and Others'.
It continued: 'This case was about Mr Lee being denied a service by the bakery, which he felt was discriminatory. The Belfast County Court and the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal found that Mr Lee had been discriminated against on grounds of sexual orientation, political opinion and religious belief, in line with case law developed over the years.
'The Supreme Court has overturned these findings and we will have to look at the implications of its judgment carefully.'
Long-time gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell welcomed the ruling, saying: 'This verdict is a victory for freedom of expression. As well as meaning that Ashers cannot be legally forced to aid the promotion of same-sex marriage, it also means that gay bakers cannot be compelled by law to decorate cakes with anti-gay marriage slogans.
'Businesses can now lawfully refuse a customer's request to emblazon a political message if they have a conscientious objection to it. This includes the right to refuse messages that are sexist, xenophobic or anti-gay, which is a good thing.
'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.'
Ashers was supported by The Christian Institute, which funded its defence. Spokesman Simon Calvert said: 'We are delighted at this common-sense ruling. It's a total vindication of Ashers Baking Company and the McArthur family. The United Kingdom has a long and proud tradition of free speech and today's ruling is a resounding reassertion of that tradition.
'They have strongly underlined the law on compelled speech, quoting a previous case which said "Nobody should be forced to have or express a political opinion in which he does not believe."
'The Court recognised that this case was about declining to support a particular message, not declining to serve a particular customer.
'The Court strongly agreed with Ashers' lawyers that this case has always been about the message on the cake and not the customer; the message, not the messenger.
'Ashers is now free to go back to doing what it does best – serving all its customers, from every walk of life.'