Ashers gay cake court case couple say they have done nothing wrong
In an exclusive first interview, Daniel and Amy McArthur tell Laurence White why their strong Christian faith underpins bid to overturn Ashers 'same-sex cake' ruling.
On the week that their youngest daughter was born, Daniel and Amy McArthur received a letter which ultimately thrust them into the media spotlight, not just in Northern Ireland but across the world.
It was notification from the NI Equality Commission that it was beginning legal proceedings against the family business over what became known as the Ashers' same-sex cake row.
Daniel is general manager of the Ashers bakery which refused to provide a cake bearing a pro-same-sex marriage slogan for a customer and was eventually found guilty of discrimination and fined £500.
The company's appeal against the judgment is due to begin this week.
Sitting in their comfortable detached home in the east Antrim village of Straid, Daniel and Amy still appear genuinely bemused both at how they were drawn into such a high profile legal action and the media frenzy which followed.
Daniel says: "It was all a massive shock to us because we are not extrovert people. We are quiet people getting on with our business day to day. We are relying on and trusting in God to help us. If we were relying on ourselves we would just break down."
This reference to their Christian faith is the central nub of the controversy.
The judge in the case accepted that the McArthur family - the action was taken against the bakery and Daniel's mother and father, Karen and Colin McArthur - had strongly held and genuine Christian beliefs which were opposed to same-sex marriage but that, under the law, that was no excuse for the business refusing to provide the service required by the customer.
Daniel says he and Amy both come from deeply Christian homes. "I have been a Christian since I was about five and Amy was also very young when she became a Christian.
"The name of the bakery comes from a verse in the Book of Genesis which my father read when he was about 15. It says 'Out of Asher his bread shall be fat and he shall yield royal dainties'. His father and grandfather had been bakers based in Sandy Row in Belfast and my father decided that if ever he ran his own bakery he would call it Ashers after that tribe of Israel."
Both Daniel and Amy were originally members of the Free Presbyterian Church but now worship at Trinity Reformed Presbyterian Church in Mossley.
They met when they were part of a group of seven who had gone to the Philippines to support a Belfast missionary working there. They were both aged 17 at the time and love blossomed. Now aged 26 and parents to two girls, Robyn (3) and Elia (1), they have been married for six years.
Daniel says their faith is not something confined to Sunday worship. "Every day we will sit down with our children and read the Bible to them and have family worship. Our faith is not just about going to church on a Sunday and then forgetting about it for the rest of the week."
Amy gives an example of how they try to instil Christian values in the everyday life of the family. "If Robyn is naughty we don't tell her that what she did is bad but that it is against what God wants us to do. That is the same lesson that we were taught when we were growing up. That is why, in this case, we could not in good conscience go against our beliefs. It is how we live our lives and how we respond to things during the day. It is something that is constantly on our minds."
The test of that faith began, according to evidence at the court hearing, on May 8 or 9 2014 when a customer, Gareth Lee, entered the family's retail outlet in Royal Avenue, Belfast. The company has a bakery at Doagh Road in Newtownabbey which supplies its six retail outlets, petrol station forecourts and small supermarkets and also runs an online ordering service supplying products to the Great Britain, Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland markets.
By coincidence Daniel's mum, Karen, was working in the shop that day covering for the manager who was on holiday. Gareth ordered a cake and supplied a graphic bearing the words QueerSpace (a lobby group) and Support Gay Marriage which he wanted iced onto it.
Daniel says his mother was shocked by the request but did not want to make a scene in the shop. "She took the order home and over that weekend we discussed it as a family. We knew as Christians that we could not take that order with that message.
"Mum later got in touch with Gareth Lee, explained the situation and apologised to him. If my granny had come into the shop and placed that order we would have said 'no' to her."
After initial contact from the Equality Commission the McArthurs contacted the Christian Institute, a UK-wide organisation. It has funded the family's legal battle since then.
"We had never been to court before," says Daniel. "I suppose all this was very daunting for us at first but we were left with little choice given the options presented to us by the Equality Commission. At one stage the organisation said that if we apologised formally for our actions it would go away. But why should we apologise to the commission about that as we felt we did not do anything wrong?"
He expects that the appeal, expected to last two days, will be less stressful than the original court hearing with its attendant publicity.
"The big factor for us in going to appeal is that it is not just for ourselves but also for other Christians working in business or, like us, owning a business. Hopefully if we can win the appeal it will give them additional rights and say that you can be a Christian and hold Christian beliefs outside the home or the church without feeling threatened," he says.
"The Equality Commission's official line is that you should leave your Christianity out of the workplace and should be a Christian at home or in church. To us that is like something out of a science fiction novel with people telling you how to act and think and if someone asks you to do something against your beliefs you have to do it."
He adds: "I feel there should be legislation to prevent people being discriminated against and accept there needs to be good law but I also feel that the Equality Commission has its own agenda and wants to see same-sex marriage introduced here.
"If you politely disagree you get shouted down and get called bigots and homophobes and it is suggested that you don't want gay people to live their lives."
He reveals that the company was targeted by vandals around the time of the court hearing. An attempt was made to break windows in the Royal Avenue shop and one of the doors was badly damaged. Food was also thrown at another shop window by people driving past.
He adds: "There were also plenty of adverse comments on social media and one letter was sent to us saying that the person was going to burn down our building and that they hoped we would be in it when they did it. However, these comments were very much in the minority. We have had hundreds of letters of support.
"When we started out on this legal road we were worried about how the public was going to perceive us and how customers would perceive us. However the support has been fantastic. So many people have gone out of their way to buy our products and to come to our shops. It felt really surreal when people came up to me on the street, in most cases just simply to shake my hand. Our business has continued to grow as it did over the last five years. God has been really good to us."
He is thankful for the support of the Christian Institute during the legal process. "We would have been lost not knowing how to deal with a body like the Equality Commission or how to put our beliefs and views across in a legal format. It is fantastic knowing that if we are worried about something we can ring the Institute and get help."
Daniel says his legal team argues that it is their human right to be able to express their beliefs in the workplace and is prepared to take the case to the European courts if judgments continue to go against them in Belfast. "I hope it does not go that far," he adds.
He supports the idea of amendments to the current anti-discrimination legislation along the lines of the conscience clause which was proposed by a DUP MLA but which failed to get through the Stormont Executive.
"I think there should be a conscience clause or reasonable accommodation for Christians or other religious beliefs in the legislation because this issue is bound to affect other faiths or political groups. Something needs to be put in place to prevent other people being ensnared in what we have been caught up in".
He adds: "That is what some people don't understand. Every day we are compelled to follow Jesus Christ and do what the Bible teaches. We live our lives doing that. It is not done out of duress or hardship, we love it."
In the immediate aftermath of the court case the family had considered stopping baking cakes ordered for special occasions.
"However we decided that we were not going to change our company policy just because of this case. Why should we? We don't believe we have done anything wrong," says Daniel.
It remains to be seen if the Appeal Court will accept that argument.
Ashers same-sex cake dispute: how it got this far...
May 2014: Gareth Lee wants a cake depicting Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie below the motto 'Support Gay Marriage' for an event to mark International Day Against Homophobia. He attends the Ashers Bakery Belfast city centre shop and places an order. Ashers Bakery initially accepts the order, but contacts Mr Lee a few days later to say they cannot fulfil it because it goes against their religious beliefs. Backed by the Equality Commission, Mr Lee sues the bakery.
March 2015: A 17-hour, three-day courtroom battle ensues. Mr Lee tells the court that he was left to feel like a "lesser person" when the firm refused his order.
The McArthurs, who own Ashers, tell the court they could not "stand before God" and produce a cake supporting gay marriage. District Judge Isobel Brownlie reserves judgment.
The case of clashing religious and equality rights attracts interest from across the world.
The case also ignites a political row, with the DUP 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.
May 2015: District Judge Isobel Brownlie delivers her judgment, finding that Ashers discriminated against customer Gareth Lee on grounds of sexual orientation and political beliefs. The firm is ordered to pay £500 in damages to Mr Lee.
October 2015: The McArthur family announce their intention to appeal.
February 2016: Ashers' challenge to the ruling gets underway. this week.