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After months of anticipation, day of destiny is a damp squib

By Deborah McAleese

Published 04/02/2016

They had been gearing up to this day for months.

From May last year, when they were found guilty of discriminating against a gay customer, the McArthurs have been waiting for their chance to fight back.

In a blaze of publicity, the Christian owners of Ashers bakery arrived at the High Court in Belfast yesterday ready for their two-day appeal against the landmark legal ruling.

Holding hands with his wife Amy as they walked into the court building, Daniel McArthur said he was "looking forward to having the ruling overturned".

He said: "We believe the County Court got the original ruling wrong.

"Ashers does not discriminate against anyone. We took issue with the message on the cake, not the customer. And as a family we believe we should retain the freedom to decline business that would force us to promote a cause with which we disagree." Mr McArthur added: "Today we appeal to the Lord Chief Justice and colleagues to overturn the County Court ruling, we appeal to them to recognise there is a big difference between refusing to serve someone because of their sexual orientation or political opinion, and choosing not to endorse those ideas."

The couple then took their seats towards the back of the public gallery to wait for the case to begin.

Just a few seats ahead sat Gareth Lee, the man who successfully sued their bakery for refusing to bake him a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan on it.

Boxes of legal files - the result of months of work - lay open on the court benches as the lawyers prepared for battle.

But before it even started the high-profile legal action ground to an unexpected halt.

A lawyer for Attorney General John Larkin told the court he wanted to address any potential conflict between Northern Ireland's equality legislation and European human rights laws.

There was stunned confusion in the packed public gallery about the last-minute twist in the case.

As the trio of judges took a 10-minute break to consider if the case should be adjourned, there were frantic discussions between all parties and their lawyers about the possible implications of the Attorney General's intervention.

Keen for the case to go ahead as planned, Robin Allen QC, representing the Equality Commission, said it was up to the court to decide whether to "salami slice" proceedings.

He added: "I dive into these waters with some degree of trepidation."

However, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan said there was a danger of "losing track" of the argument if the case was split in two with representation from the Attorney General being heard at a later stage. He added: "We all have life-jackets on."

Both parties will now have to wait until May for the court to hear the appeal. It could then be several more weeks, or even months, before a judgment is made.

Belfast Telegraph

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