Belfast Telegraph

Ashers gay cake battle: 'If contracts can be broken the law is worth nothing'

The evidence point by point... how the complainant's case unfolded.

THE OPENING

Opening the case, Robin Allen QC, representing Gareth Lee, noted the publicity around the case and highlighted that politicians, church figures, bloggers and others had expressed opinions on the matter.

But the barrister insisted the case must be judged on the facts alone. "Law must not be determined by those who shout loudest," he said.

Mr Allen said he was not in court to challenge the McArthur family's faith. "This is a case about commerce and discrimination," he said.

Mr Allen added some had portrayed Ashers as "David" to the Equality Commission's "Goliath".But he stressed that the case involved a dispute between Mr Lee and a bakery which was a £1 million international enterprise.

"In circumstances such as these, you might say Mr Lee was David and Ashers Goliath," he said.

THE BACKGROUND

Outlining his view of the facts, Mr Allen said Mr Lee had used the bakery on Royal Avenue in Belfast city centre "regularly" before the incident. He said his client had seen a leaflet in the shop advertising a service whereby images could be printed in edible icing on a cake.

He said there was nothing on the leaflet which suggested a limitation on the service due to "religious scruples" and noted that one of the images on the leaflet was of a Halloween cake with a green witch on it.

The barrister told the court that the order was accepted by Ashers director Karen McArthur and Mr Lee paid for it in full.

"A contract was therefore concluded," he said.

Mr Allen said that, over the next few days, Mrs McArthur expressed concern about the requested cake design with her daughter-in-law, Amy, and the matter was then discussed with her son, Daniel.

After that Mr Lee was informed that his order would not be processed due to the family's religious views, said the lawyer.

Mr Allen insisted that the baking of a cake did not involve endorsing any message carried on it and highlighted that the proposed design would not have had an Ashers logo on it.

He compared the baking of a cake to a postman delivering a letter or a printer printing a poster. "A postman taking a letter to the door or a printer carrying out a printing job - nobody would say that involved promoting or support," he said. "It's simply a functional relationship, a working relationship."

THE LAW

Mr Allen acknowledged that a "section of society" wanted amendments to the law. He said that was a legitimate objective to pursue but stressed that the case before the court had to be judged on the law as it stands.

"It's a complete fallacy to think you can secure an amendment to regulations through defending a litigation," he argued.

Mr Allen told Judge Isobel Brownlie that it was her job to apply the law, not make the law.

"You can't second-guess the legislature," he said.

Mr Allen said if firms were allowed to break contracts with individuals then "the law is worth nothing", adding: "The rule of law says there shall be no discrimination in the commercial sphere."

THE COMPANY

The barrister insisted that Ashers was not an "explicitly religious" business and referred to an interview Daniel McArthur gave to a newspaper in which he claimed the majority of his 60-plus workforce were unaware of his family's faith.

Mr Allen stressed the importance of anti-discrimination legislation in Northern Ireland, given its history of sectarian strife. He said the views of religious groups had been carefully considered when drawing up the current regulations and a line had been set in regard to what constituted a breach.

"There has been a democratic process in reaching a legislative solution to where that demarcation should be drawn," he said.

THE GAY ACTIVIST

Gareth Lee told the court he would have been open to mediation in a bid to resolve his dispute with Ashers.

Mr Lee entered the witness box as part of his action against the company for alleged discrimination based on his sexual orientation.

He said his order was accepted by Ashers without any problem, only to receive a phone call around 48 hours later from an "extremely apologetic" Karen McArthur to explain her position.

Under cross-examination, David Scoffield QC, for Ashers, said the director only saw the image after the order form had been filled out. Although unable to recall whether it would have been rolled up when he went into the shop, Mr Lee said he felt sorry for Mrs McArthur as she gave him the bad news.

"At the time I felt this is pretty bad, they are asking an employee to deliver the message," he said.

In his statement he had claimed the refusal left him "shocked, bewildered and very hurt". Going further in his evidence, the plaintiff added: "In my mind I was thinking, I don't believe this, this is unbelievable, this is Northern Ireland and it shouldn't happen.

"It's not very pleasant to be told you're not worthy of service because somebody says they are Christian, that doesn't make me feel good."

It was put to him that no-one from Ashers ever suggested he was inferior during his dealings with the bakery. Mr Lee replied: "Not in those words, but the outworking of that message to me made me feel that way."

Later in his evidence he was challenged about describing the defendants as holding the view that homosexuality is sinful.

"That's not actually what the McArthurs' position is," Mr Scoffield stressed. Their beliefs are that Christianity draws a distinction between gay sexual relations and having homosexual orientation, the court heard.

The barrister tried to get Mr Lee to put himself in his clients' position. "They are taken to court, facing the prospect of paying damages and costs," he said. "Can you understand how they might think their views are being treated as less worthy than yours?"

The gay rights activist responded: "Throughout this I have been open to conversation or mediation, it's been explicitly offered in our correspondence and that's never been taken up on."

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