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Ashers gay cake row: Whatever the outcome, it's unlikely to be the end of the matter

By Claire McNeilly

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

It ended up in a 17-hour, three-day courtroom battle in March.

And tomorrow district judge Isobel Brownlie will deliver her reserved judgment.

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

Gareth Lee, a gay rights activist, had placed an order for a cake with the slogan 'support gay marriage' and an image of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street.

Ashers Bakery 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.

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

The McArthur family - who own and run Ashers - told the court that they could not "stand before God" and produce a cake supporting gay marriage.

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 says it will block this Bill. District judge Isobel Brownlie told Belfast County Court she would reserve her judgment so that "full consideration" could be given to the evidence, which was presented over three days.

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

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