Last week, Poland’s Supreme Court ruled that an employee of a print shop could not refuse to print a banner for an LGBT organization because he did not want, in his eyes, to “promote” the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people.
The court was upholding a lower court’s decision that the right to equality before the law meant the printer did not have a right to withhold services from the organization.
Human rights groups in Poland, such as the Campaign Against Homophobia, hailed the ruling as a huge step in enforcing equal rights for LGBT people, but the Polish Minister of Justice and Prosecutor General, Zbigniew Ziobro, sharply criticized it. He said the Supreme Court sided with the “ideology of homosexual activists” against the government.
In many democracies in the European Union, a justice minister might disagree with a court decision, but would never think to cast it as a betrayal of the government. In reality Ziobro had made great efforts to secure a positive outcome for the printer – in particular by instructing prosecutors to appeal after two lower courts decided in favor of the LGBT organization. He then took the case to the Supreme Court asking for the printer’s position to be vindicated.
This controversy between the Polish government and the Supreme Court comes at a time when the Polish government has introduced new legislation, taking effect on July 3, giving the government greater influence over the appointment of judges to the very same court. The new law could force almost half the Supreme Court judges into early retirement. The EU has slammed the Polish law as undermining Poland’s judicial independence. In December 2017, the European Commission triggered Article 7, part of the EU treaty designed to help countries deal with conduct by EU governments that puts the EU’s values at risk. It could result in Poland getting its voting rights suspended within the Council of Ministers.
Last week’s ruling should be celebrated as a principled confirmation that everyone, no matter their sexual orientation, is entitled to the same services without discrimination. But the ruling also reinforces in stark terms how important it is that the judiciary is independent from government and that the rule of law is firmly engrained in Poland’s democracy.