Belfast Telegraph

Ashers gay cake row: Courtroom clash of lawyers and media scrum outside, all because of bakery order

By Deborah McAleese

In a courtroom usually reserved for some of Northern Ireland's most dangerous criminals, a young Christian family waited patiently to defend their religious beliefs.

The enormity of this case could not have been lost on husband and wife Daniel and Amy McArthur as they sat in a courtroom surrounded by lawyers, the media, politicians and many members of the public.

But they did not seem overwhelmed by the attention this case has attracted, as they confidently addressed the large media pack outside Belfast courthouse yesterday morning.

Despite this being a civil action, a courtroom usually used for criminal Crown Court cases has been set aside for the two-day hearing because of the massive public and Press interest.

The large dock, which usually holds crime suspects, separated the McArthur family and the gay rights activist Gareth Lee who lodged a complaint of discrimination against Ashers Bakery for refusing to bake him a cake on religious grounds.

Amy and Daniel McArthur were joined by Daniel's mother Karen McArthur, a director at Asher's Bakery.

She was the person who initially accepted and took payment for Mr Lee's cake order which carried a slogan promoting gay marriage and an image of Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie.

However, following discussions with her son and daughter-in-law it was decided to refuse to bake the cake because of the family's "sincerely held religious beliefs".

Mr Lee sat on the opposite side of the courtroom with a friend.

Mr Lee and the McArthurs did not acknowledge each other throughout yesterday's hearing.

The case has been dubbed a David and Golliath challenge - a small, local business run by a Christian family being taken to task by the publicly funded Equality Commission.

However, legal counsel for Mr Lee, Robin Allen QC, said that Ashers was Goliath in this case.

"Ashers is a substantial business. It has six shops across Ulster, has a substantial online business called Buildacake; it has 75 or so employees and in its own words it supplies a vast number of convenience stores.

"Not only does it sell cakes in Ulster, it delivers across the UK and into the Republic of Ireland.

"Most recent accounts show that the company's net assets exceed £1m.

"This is a case about a single man who had a contract for a cake which was accepted by a substantial international £1m business," said Mr Allen.

"You might say that Mr Lee was David and Ashers was Goliath - but I promised not to use biblical quotations in this case; it's facts and law," he added.

The sober atmosphere of the court was afforded some light relief when Mr Lee was asked if he wished to swear on the Bible or take the civil oath as he approached the witness stand to give evidence. He opted for the civil oath.

Clasping and unclasping his hands, Mr Lee initially appeared nervous as he sat through the morning's proceedings. But when he took to the witness box his delivery was calm and confident.

It was the first time throughout the hearing that the McArthurs were seen to look directly at Mr Lee.

He told the court that when Karen McArthur contacted him to tell him they could not fulfil his order on religious grounds he felt "sorry" and "anxious" for her.

"Mrs McArthur was extremely apologetic," he said. "I told her I realised this was a difficult call for her. But the message was a difficult one for me to accept... It made me feel I'm not worthy, I'm a lesser person and to me that is wrong.

"In my eyes what I was asking wasn't offensive, it was just an everyday transaction," Mr Lee said.

This case, at its core, is about conflicting rights. The right to religious freedom versus the right to be treated equally.

The judge will decide which right carries most weight in law.

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.

A dispute which began in a small Co Antrim bakery will soon also be played out in the corridors of Stormont.

"If you find (in favour of) Mr Lee, that may give support to political campaign to amend the law. So be it," Mr Lee's QC told the court.

More court hearings also seem to be inevitable.

Regardless of the verdict delivered by Judge Isobel Brownlie, the controversy seems certain to be destined for further appeals to higher courts. It will also be viewed as a test case for similar rows across the UK.

Further Reading

Ashers gay cake battle: Legal clash ignites passions around the world

Ashers gay cake case: If you're in business your door must be open to all, QC tells Belfast court

Conscience Bill will not solve crisis

Ashers gay cake row: Courtroom clash of lawyers and media scrum outside, all because of bakery order

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

Gay cake row: Gareth Lee 'felt unworthy' over Ashers Bakery refusal to bake cake 

 

 

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