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Equality at work: staying within the law

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What Asher's appeal decision means for your business

Evelyn Collinsby Dr Evelyn Collins CBE, Chief Executive, Equality Commission NI

The Court of Appeal decision in the case of Lee v Ashers Baking Company Ltd has generated a lot of public debate about what service providers can and cannot do.

Dr Evelyn Collins CBEI thought it would be helpful to highlight the important aspects of the decision. The first important aspect is that the decision does not change the law. It confirms the legal position, which underpins our advice to employers and service providers, that organisations providing services to the public cannot discriminate against people on any of the grounds covered by anti-discrimination legislation governing the provision of goods, facilities and services to the public in Northern Ireland.

A second issue is the belief that the judgement diminishes the rights of faith communities. Equality law protects the rights of all people to hold religious beliefs, and the right to manifest them, but the Court of Appeal decision is clear that: “Anyone who applies a religious aspect or a political aspect to the provision of services may be caught by equality legislation, not because the legislation treats their religious or political opinion less favourably but because that person seeks to distinguish, on a basis that is prohibited, between those who will receive their service and those who will not.” So religious belief cannot be manifested in the commercial sphere in a way which infringes certain rights of others.

A third area of debate has been that a business can be forced to provide a service endorsing views which it opposes. In this case, the Court of Appeal affirmed that asking the company to place the customer’s message on the cake did not require them to promote or support gay marriage any more than “the fact that a baker provides a cake for a particular team or portrays witches on a Halloween cake does not indicate any support for either”.

Many business owners who hold moral or religious beliefs take decisions which limit the scope of that business – such as Sunday opening or stocking lottery tickets – and this is a clear way of ensuring that your customers know what to expect.

Fourthly, there has been some commentary about the Commission’s role in providing advice and assistance to those providing services in the commercial sphere and some criticism that we did not provide advice to Ashers Baking Company Ltd at an early stage of the case. The Commission is available to provide advice and assistance to all those with queries about how the law may apply to their business – however, we do not have a remit to support respondents in discrimination cases, our role under statute is to support complainants or prospective claimants.

We take proactive steps to provide advice and assistance to those with responsibilities under equality law through one to one contacts with businesses, and through our publications, website, training events and seminars.

Posted on 02 Jan 2017 by Evelyn Collins CBE