Belfast Telegraph

Ashers gay cake case will have freedom of expression implications for UK, say Belfast Christian bakers

Christian owners of same-sex cake row bakery back in court to try and have discrimination ruling overturned

By Deborah McAleese

The Christian owners of the bakery at the centre of the same-sex cake storm have warned that their case has implications for freedom of expression right across the UK.

Exactly two years after the McArthur family, owners of Ashers Baking Company, refused to make a cake bearing a pro-same-sex marriage slogan, they were back in court in a bid to overturn a ruling that they had discriminated against a gay customer.

As they took their battle to protect their religious beliefs to the High Court in Belfast yesterday, Ashers' manager Daniel McArthur, accompanied by his wife Amy, said they do not want to be forced "to endorse a campaign that is against their deeply held religious beliefs".

Last year Ashers bakery was ordered to pay £500 for refusing to make the cake, which featured Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie and the slogan 'Support Gay Marriage'.

A Belfast court found that customer Gareth Lee, who was backed by the Equality Commission, had been discriminated against on the grounds of his sexual orientation.

The McArthur family decided to appeal the decision with financial backing from the Christian Institute.

The hearing was scheduled for February. However, it was halted following a last-minute intervention by Attorney General John Larkin amid concern over a potential conflict between sections of the province's equality legislation and UK and European human rights laws.

The High Court appeal finally got under way yesterday before Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, Lord Justice Weir and Lord Justice Weatherup. It is expected to last four days.

"Two years ago we were asked to help promote a campaign to redefine marriage in Northern Ireland," said Daniel McArthur before the hearing.

"We never imagined that two years later we would find ourselves still living with the consequences of that request.

"We never imagined that the Equality Commission would try to force us to promote that campaign. Or that the County Court would agree with them.

"So we're here again and we're hoping this court will rule that we are not required to endorse a view that goes against our conscience."

He added that the Attorney General's involvement "confirms there are big issues at stake".

"This was never just a case about one little bakery in Belfast," he said.

"It's always had implications for freedom of expression throughout the UK. Throughout, God has graciously sustained us, even though we're just weak sinners."

Family barrister David Scoffield QC told the court that it would have been "sinful" for the family to go against their conscience and bake the cake with the slogan backing same-sex marriage.

He said it was "not a refusal to provide a cake to the gay customer, the issue was the cake he requested".

The lawyer added that the case "raises important issues of principle", and that the message on the cake was inconsistent with the McArthurs' "deeply held religious beliefs".

"The issue is the extent to which those who hold such religious convictions can be required by the law to act in a manner inconsistent with their convictions."

He added: "It makes it extremely difficult for any business such as a printer or someone who, as we have seen in this case, creates T-shirts or creates cakes, to run any kind of bespoke service if faced with the position that someone could come through your door and order something which is clearly objectionable."

Mr Scoffield insisted that had a heterosexual person ordered a cake with the same message, they would also have been refused.

"It isn't a discrimination case, as anyone who ordered the cake would have received the same treatment... it didn't matter who ordered the cake, they couldn't in conscience produce it," the lawyer said.

"This was not a failure to offer a service. This was a totally abnormal order."

The controversy erupted in May 2014 when Mr Lee, a member of LGBT advocacy group Queer Space, ordered the cake for a private function marking International Day Against Homophobia. He paid the £36.50 in full when placing the order at Ashers' Belfast branch, but two days later the company phoned to say it could not be processed.

Mr Scoffield said the person who took the order had no idea what Mr Lee's sexual orientation was and had never heard of Queer Space.

He said the alleged discrimination was not against Mr Lee, it was against the message, but the law only covered harm caused to an individual.

"Discrimination must be against the person, not against an idea or an object," he added.

"A cake cannot have a political opinion or a religious belief, it is a person who can do so."

Following a three-day hearing last March, District Judge Isobel Brownlie found Ashers directly discriminated against Mr Lee, who had been treated "less favourably" contrary to the law.

Ordering the baker to pay damages of £500 the judge said religious beliefs could not dictate the law.

However, the McArthurs said they believed they were being punished for their Christian beliefs and they should be allowed to retain the freedom to decline business that would force them to promote a cause with which they disagreed.

At hearing.

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