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Is the cake case recipe for disaster over freedom of conscience?

It's been described as a 'David v Goliath' struggle between the state and a small bakery. Ahead of next week's court showdown between the Equality Commission and Ashers Bakery, Ivan Little asks what's the price of freedom of belief in Northern Ireland in 2015

It's a normal, busy, bustling morning on Belfast's Royal Avenue and, as scores of office and shop workers scurry through the heart of the city, few of them give so much as a second glance to the ordinary-looking bakery which is at the centre of an extraordinary legal battle over what could prove to be the costliest cake in Northern Ireland's history.

Inside Ashers Bakery, which is sandwiched between an HSBC bank and a sushi bar called Obento, there's nothing to indicate that this tiny coffee shop, which would struggle to seat 16 people inside and out, has become the focus of a landmark battle over discrimination, human rights and equality issues.

And all because its Christian owners refused to bake a cake for a gay activist, because they objected on religious grounds to decorating it with a message promoting same-sex marriage.

So next week, for two days at Belfast County Court on the second floor of the sprawling glass-fronted Laganside courts complex, barristers and lawyers will get a slice of a huge and complex legal action which could cost a six-figure sum to sort out as the Equality Commission tries to bring Ashers' owners to book.

Back at Ashers, where there are no Bibles, no religious tracts and no leaflets promoting, or opposing, anything on display, a middle-aged woman walks into the bakery with packets of soda farls and muffins in her hands, but it soon becomes clear that hunger isn't the only motivation for her purchases.

"I've been trying to drum up support for these people." she says. "I am 100% in support of them."

Such declarations of solidarity aren't unusual, apparently. But passers-by have also targeted the four staff inside Ashers for verbal abuse.

The cake controversy started last summer when Gareth Lee entered the bakery and asked staff to make him a cake with a 'Support Gay Marriage' slogan alongside the Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie together with the logo of a Belfast campaign group called Queerspace.

Mr Lee's photograph, with a placard bearing the same message, had been widely circulated on the internet after he was pictured at a gay rights parade.

At Ashers, the order - to mark the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia in Belfast - was processed by staff in the normal way, but the devout Christian family who founded the bakery 23 years ago refused to bake it.

Colin and Karen McArthur and their son Daniel said the gay marriage message ran counter to their Christian beliefs and they gave Mr Lee a refund.

A supporter of the family said that they weren't turning gay people away from their bakeries. She added: "It was that cake and what it was.

"That was the problem. They weren't refusing to serve gays - that would have been direct discrimination."

But several weeks after the cake order was cancelled, the Equality Commission wrote to the bakers, saying they had acted unlawfully and had discriminated against Mr Lee on the grounds of his sexual orientation.

Four months on, the commission announced they were taking the bakers - who get their name from the Asher tribe in the book of Genesis in the Bible - to court.

It was said to have been a stunning blow for Ashers, who employ more than 70 people at seven retail outlets, mainly centred around Newtownabbey and Carnmoney, with their bakehouse based at Mallusk.

But it was quickly confirmed that the Christian Institute, a British evangelical pressure group, would be backing the McArthurs and they appealed for public donations to help finance the costly legal case through their legal defence fund.

The institute recently held a rally in a Belfast church which was attended by the DUP's former health minister Edwin Poots and his Assembly colleague Paul Givan, who is trying to introduce a conscience clause into legislation at Stormont which would allow people with strong religious views to refuse to provide services which offend them.

Daniel McArthur, the general manager of Ashers, told a 700-strong congregation in the Iron Hall in east Belfast that the order conflicted with Biblical teachings that marriage was given from God and was between a man and a woman.

"We simply exercised our right not to use our creative skills to promote a cause with which we fundamentally disagree," he said, adding that in the past the bakery had refused cake orders with lewd images and foul language.

Mr McArthur said that he felt his firm was involved in a David and Goliath struggle against the Equality Commission who were funded by taxpayers' money.

But he said: "We know in the Bible it says if God is for us, who can be against us?"

And he added: "I have said that Ashers is willing to serve any customer regardless of their sexual lifestyle, their race, religion or their political stance, but we will not be forced to promote a cause with which we fundamentally disagree, because these Biblical beliefs are obviously the highest priority as to how we live and conduct our lives."

Mr McArthur said that people who were opposed to their views on same-sex marriage had supported their right to turn down an order which conflicted with their conscience.

Another speaker at the rally in support of the McArthurs was Christian B&B owner Hazelmary Bull, from Cornwall, who lost a Supreme Court appeal against a lower court ruling that she and her husband, Peter, should pay £3,600 damages to a gay couple they turned away from their guesthouse.

The Bulls had refused to allow partners Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy to stay in a double room at their seven-bedroomed Chymorvah House establishment in Marazion, Cornwall in 2008.

The Bulls had appealed to the Supreme Court, asking for the earlier judgments to be thrown out and for a "reasonable accomodation" of their religious beliefs.

But five judges said their policy had amounted to sexual orientation discrimination and dismissed their case.

The Bulls said they were deeply disappointed and saddened by the outcome of the appeal.

"We were not and we never have been homophobic," Mrs Bull told me.

"It was a double bed that was the issue. We would have been happy for the two men to stay in single rooms, but our policy was not to let a man and a woman who were not married to share a double bed under our roof."

The Bulls said they received massive support throughout their court hearings. Mrs Bull said: "Overall, we had 6,000 letters from across the world backing us and 32 against our stance. Next to England, most of the support came from Northern Ireland.

"And, as soon as we heard about the Ashers case, we sent the McArthurs an email telling them we were behind them all the way."

Mrs Bull said her heart had gone out to the McArthurs, with whom she said she had now established a close and abiding friendship.

She will be attending next week's court case and another rally in support of the family two days before it in the Waterfront Hall just across the road from the Laganside courts.

She told me: "I can identify with them completely. It was a nerve-wracking and distressing experience for us and now we can't advertise our B&B, because the English Tourist Board kicked us out of their inspection scheme because our policies differ from theirs.

"They said they would have us back if we signed a statement saying we would change our policy, which we don't feel morally that we can do.

"So, at a stroke, we lost between 60% and 70% of our business and we barely have enough money to pay our electricity and our water, though a dear Christian lady in Essex pays our mortgage now."

The Bulls' website for Chymorvah House is still online and still carries the message: "As Christians, we have a deep regard for marriage (being the union of one man to one woman for life to the exclusion of all others), therefore although we extend to all a warm welcome to our home, our double-bedded accommodation is not available to unmarried couples."

During part of their legal proceedings, the Bulls were represented by leading UK human rights lawyer Aidan O'Neill QC, who earlier this week warned that the Equality Commission would face an "avalanche" of cases if they won their civil action against Ashers.

Mr O'Neill said that, if Ashers lost the case, other businesses would have no defences in scenarios including those of a Muslim printer refusing to print cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, or a Catholic printing firm who declined an order to produce advertisements calling for abortion on demand.

Another legal source told me: "He's got a point. And what would happen if a T-shirt company owned by gays were asked to print slogans denouncing homosexuality?"

First Minister Peter Robinson has already said that the Equality Commission's decision to take Ashers to court was "bonkers". "The pursuit of this company is unnecessary, discriminatory and wasteful of public money," he added.

TUV leader Jim Allister, who's a former barrister, said of the case: "This is a blatant attempt by the commission to push the boundaries of equality laws to the point where they coerce and suppress freedom of conscience."

The Equality Commission has refused to discuss the upcoming proceedings other than to say they were supporting an individual taking a case before the County Court alleging discrimination under two anti-discrimination statutes.

They're the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (NI) 2006 and the Fair Employment and Treatment Order (NI) 1998.

A commission statement said: "This case raises issues of public importance regarding the extent to which suppliers of goods and services can refuse service on grounds of sexual orientation, religious belief and political opinion."

The statement went on: "The commission's policy is not to discuss details about any case we are supporting once proceedings have been issued.

"This is a matter for the court to deal with now and we do not wish to prejudice the court's consideration of the issues, or the outcome of its consideration by debating the details of the case in public," it added.

The Christian Institute is staging a Support Ashers Bakers rally at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast on Tuesday (8-9.30pm). Speakers will include Ashers' general manager Daniel McArthur, Chymorvah House B&B owner Hazelmary Bull and the Christian Institute's solicitor-advocate Sam Webster

Recent rulings watched by legal experts

Two recent rulings on different sides of the Atlantic have been watched with as much interest as the Ashers case will be viewed by legal experts.

In 2013, the European Court of Human Rights upheld a number of cases against the Westminster Government, including two brought by Christians in relation to a nurse and a British Airways employee wearing crosses and another involving a registrar who didn’t want to officiate at gay weddings.

In America, two years ago the Supreme Court ruled in favour of a chain store group called Hobby Lobby, whose Christian owners didn’t want to provide their employees with a limited number of contraception alternatives, like morning-after pills, under their healthcare and insurance package programme.

“The essence of that judgment was that family businesses could run their companies according to the principles they hold and that they didn’t lose their religious freedom just because they were operating a business,” said a legal source.

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