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Lee v Ashers Baking Co: Violation of Liberal Principles of Equality


The issue of equality and the uniqueness of persons has always been a widely discussed topic. The case of Lee v Ashers Baking Co is an instance of discrimination that should be considered to show the Court’s approach to the violation of liberal principles of equality (Lee v Ashers Baking Co., 2018). This essay will examine the role of law in people’s behavior regulating and explain the meaning of being unique for a person. Moreover, it will discuss how the case reflects liberal principles of equality and the uniqueness of persons based on a debate between Herbert Lionel Adolphus Hart and Patric Devlin and John Stuard Mill’s work (Devlin 1959; Harris, 1997). In addition, the relationship between intimate personal choices will be explained.

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Background of the Case

The case of Lee v Ashers Baking Co reflects one of a possible violation of liberal principles’ rights. The baking company refused to make a cake that contained a message that promotes same-sex marriage (Lee v Ashers Baking Co., 2018). The rejection was explained with religious beliefs, to which it is offensive to support this perspective, as they disagree with it. Therefore, discrimination based on sexual orientation is claimed to be present in this situation. On the other hand, it would be a violation of human being’s uniqueness, beliefs, and principles if the company made the cake. Thus, the Court should decide based on liberal principles of equality and society’s norms and expectations.

Explanation of Principles of Liberal Equality

The explanation of key principles of equality and their fundamental elements should be provided, before examining the case in detail, as they will be referred to during the discussion in the following paragraphs. Three normative postulates determine the attitude toward every human being. The first one is equal consideration, which implies the absence of difference in distinct people’s treatment regardless of such factors as race, sex, age, and others. Therefore, human beings are of equal worth, and according to Becker (1992), “a fundamental concern about equal protection of human potential exists even when powers, expertise, and autonomy are not equal” (p. 97). Thus, despite any differences and human uniqueness, all people can expect to be treated equally.

The second principle is equal happiness, which implies the equal consideration of all the people’s conditions of their well-being. Moreover, it means that human beings should have autonomy, vulnerability, and power in equal measure (Becker, 1992, p. 98). The third principle is equal opportunity, which implies that there is a guarantee that “arbitrary factors, such as race, sex, or social class, do not determine people’s welfare” (Becker, 1992, p. 99). Simultaneously, people are not restricted by anything but their abilities and talents. There are also six elements of liberal equality, which complement the determination of appropriate treatment of human beings. These rules are equal expertise, unique worth, potential, power, vulnerability, and autonomy. They define rights for unbiased judgment, respect and dignity, equivalent possibilities, similar capabilities of choice and actions, weaknesses, and unique moral principles (Becker, 1992). The outlined principles and elements of liberal equality are considered by Court in the case that will be discussed in the following paragraphs.

The Relationship between Intimate Personal Choices: The “Law’s Business:” Personal Uniqueness

It is worth beginning the case of discrimination with an explanation of what it means for a person to be unique, as the violation of uniqueness is the main point of the controversy. Based on the debate between Hart and Devlin (1959), “no act of immorality should be made a criminal offense unless it is accompanied by some other feature such as indecency, corruption, or exploitation” (p. 3). It indicates that private life is not the “law’s business,” and regardless of what society considers to be “not normal,” it cannot be condemned. Thus, homosexuality, religion, and other phenomena and personal characteristics, which are not dangerous to others, are not the law’s scope of interest. Intimate personal choices, which are also a part of the case’s complexity, sometimes are contractionary ones. Although, according to Devlin (1959), “a state, which refuses to enforce Christian beliefs has lost the right to enforce Christian morals,” there is “individual freedom of choice and action” (p. 8). It implies that considering the baker’s religious beliefs, which are opposite to the gay couple’s ones, should not deprive any of the sides of their rights to be equally treated when moral actions might be a violation of freedom.

Personal uniqueness should be respected by society and the law, as the principles and elements of liberal equality emphasize human beings’ rights to have their individuality. It is also stated by the mentioned above postulates that regardless the personal characteristics, a person should not be restricted, but in the opposite, treated equally to others. Simultaneously, the role of law is to ensure the total satisfaction of individuals and society, while accusing the “inappropriate behavior” is not the effective approach (Harris, 1997). Therefore, the law is not expected to protect the community from actions, which can be considered morally wrong if they do not influence others but the performer. The uniqueness is respected by the law, while consideration of intimate personal choices serves the satisfying the individuals and the society overall.

Representation of Principles and Elements of Liberal Equality in the Case

According to the first principle of equality, there was a complicated dilemma between respecting religious beliefs and sexual orientation. Taking into consideration the mentioned postulate and based on human rights on unbiased judgment and weaknesses, the Court outlines the vital point of the controversy. As there was no evidence that the gay couple wanted a particular message made on the cake, there could be no promotion of same-sex marriage. So there is a distinction between refusal based on violation of baker’s religious principles or the rejection because of the customer’s personal characteristics. The Court decided that “The baker had violated the Colorado law prohibiting businesses which offered sales or services to the public from discrimination based on sexual orientation” (Lee v Ashers Baking Co, 2018, p. 17). Respecting both the gay couple and baking company’s owners’ uniqueness, and in accordance with the principles and elements of liberal equality, the violation of the customer’s rights to buy a cake was found.

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The case between the homosexual activist and bakery about the refusal to bake a cake is complicated because personal uniqueness and right for equality conflicted with religious beliefs. The Court, successfully representing liberal principles, make a decision that there was a violation of humans’ rights based on sexual orientation. Individual characteristics of the gay couple were the reason for the rejection to make a cake, as the previous explanation, which is the promotion of same-sex marriage, was not proved to be the actual one. Thus, taking the principles of liberal equality, the Court decided that there was no violation based on the sexual orientation of the customer. The reason is that there was no evidence that writing of promotion of same-sex marriage on the cake is wanted. The principles of liberal equality are reflected in the case and respected by the Court.


Becker, L. C. (1992). Elements of liberal equality: Introduction to Kirp, Hochschild, and Strauss. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 34(1), 89–100. Web.

Devlin, P. (1959) Morals and criminal law. In Enforcement of Morals (pp. 1-25). Oxford University Press.

Harris, J. (1997). Utilitarianism and the economic analysis of law. In Legal Philosophies (pp. 45-52). University of London.

Lee v Ashers Baking Co, 49 UKSC (2018). Web.

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