Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 26 May 2016

Ashers Bakery 'gay cake' case: End of the hearing, but not the debate

By Deborah McAleese

Published 31/03/2015

Gareth Lee, a volunteer member of the LGBT advocacy group Queer Space and who had ordered the cake, pictured outside Laganside Courts after the case finished
Gareth Lee, a volunteer member of the LGBT advocacy group Queer Space and who had ordered the cake, pictured outside Laganside Courts after the case finished

After 17 hours battling it out in a courtroom, the decision in this landmark case is now in the hands of District Judge Isobel Brownlie.

Gareth Lee, the gay rights activist whose request for a cake with a gay marriage slogan was refused by Ashers Bakery, looked exhausted by the end of the three day hearing.

When asked at the conclusion of the case yesterday if he wished to make a comment to the Press he replied wearily: "Not today, not ever."

In contrast, Ashers manager Daniel McArthur and his wife Amy left the court smiling and holding hands.

"We are thankful that God has sustained us through it all," the young businessman said.

This case of clashing religious and equality rights has attracted interest from right across the world.

It all began with a simple request in a small Belfast bakery for a cake.

But the ripple effect is likely to continue for some time.

"This was simply about making a cake and to carry out a mechanical process ... Objectively a piece of icing would be placed on a piece of cake," Mr Lee's barrister Robin Allen QC told the court.

Mr Lee had placed an order for a cake with the slogan 'support gay marriage' and an image of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street. Ashers initially accepted the order, but contacted Mr Lee a few days later to say they could not fulfil it because it went against their religious beliefs.

Last week Mr Lee told the court that he was left to feel like a "lesser person" when the firm refused his order.

When he was told the order was cancelled because of religious beliefs, he said he felt: "I wasn't worthy of service because they were Christian. That was the message that struck me. It made me feel not worthy, like I'm a lesser person and to me that is wrong."

The dispute could have major implications for business owners across Northern Ireland and beyond, who cite religious conscience to refuse services if they feel it is contrary to their beliefs.

If the judge should find in Mr Lee's favour it is unlikely that will be the end of the matter. The case has already ignited a political row. The DUP has been attempting to introduce a conscience clause Bill which would give business owners the right to refuse service if it impinges on their sincerely held religious views. Sinn Fein say they will block this bill.

"If there is a debate the politicians might decide to draw the lines in different places. It is not my business. That's for the politicians to do. If there's more litigation on any amended law we will have to grapple with that," said Mr Allen.

In his final submissions to the court Mr Allen said it was the use of the word 'gay' in the phrase on the cake that was the cause of Mr Lee to be treated differentially.

"But for the word gay this order would have been fulfilled. Ashers did not advertise themselves as a business with religious scruples.

"In this case we do not have a situation where there was a refusal to enter into contract. You have a case where contract was accepted, where possession was taken knowingly of the graphic, where the graphic was not contrary to the terms and conditions."

The McArthur family told the court on Friday that they could not "stand before God" and produce a cake supporting gay marriage.

Daniel McArthur said: "We felt as Christians we could not in conscience put it on a cake. We believe the business is being given to us by God and how we use it is on our shoulders."

He added: "We weren't doing it in defiance of the law. We don't know the ins and outs of the law. Our Christian faith is the utmost importance to us.

"It is how we run our entire lives and bring our families up. Before God, it is not something we could do."

Lawyer for Ashers Bakery, David Scoffield, warned the court yesterday that business owners should not be forced to promote a cause with which they don't agree.

"If the plaintiff is right, a Muslim printer could not decline printing a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. An atheist baker could not decline baking a cake with the slogan God made the world in six days. A gay baker could not decline to make a cake with the message gay sex is an abomination. A Catholic baker could not decline to bake a cake looking for abortion to be legalised," he said.

Mr Scoffield added: "There are cases, even if they are maybe rare, where people are entitled to say 'I'm sorry, I'm not in conscience able to do that.'"

Regardless of the verdict delivered by Judge Brownlie, the controversy seems certain to be destined for appeals to higher courts.

What churches and Christian organisations have to say on issue

Dr Norman Hamilton, former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church: "The law needs to value the role of conscience and the freedom to manifest one's beliefs in the public square... as a Church we would want to see the concept of 'reasonable accommodation' developed in law with the aim of achieving a better way of enabling people to manifest their beliefs in the public area, while still offering protection from discrimination."

Bishop Harold Miller, Church of Ireland: "It is important to find an accommodation which respects the rights of all. It is not only church people who are sympathetic towards Ashers. Many people of other faiths, and indeed none, share these concerns."

Statement from Catholic diocese of Down and Connor: "Catholic social teaching underlines the importance of the right to freedom of conscience as an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person. Alongside the principle of equality, there needs to be recognition of conscience of religion as a fundamental human right and as a cornerstone of a diverse and pluralist society."

Rev Donald Ker, Secretary of the Methodist Church in Ireland: "The principles of equality and freedom of conscience are significant in their own right. We recognise that this was a difficult case and that there are important principles at stake."

Peter Lynas, Evangelical Alliance NI: "Equality is an important notion supported by Christians, but it must be held in tension with rights and responsibilities, and in the context of the much richer notions of dignity and justice. When equality becomes the sole lens through which a situation is viewed, distortions like the Ashers' case can occur."

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