The Christian owners of a bakery at the centre of the 'gay cake' row, thanked God as they left court yesterday for helping them through their "stressful" ordeal.
After three days of legal battle between Ashers Bakery and the gay rights activist whose cake order was refused by the company on religious grounds, County Court Judge Isobel Brownlie reserved judgment in the landmark case.
The directors of Ashers Bakery have been accused of discrimination by gay rights activist Gareth Lee who ordered a cake with the slogan 'support gay marriage' at the company's Royal Avenue shop in Belfast.
Initially owner Karen McArthur accepted the order but after discussions with her family she later contacted Mr Lee and told him his request could not be fulfilled because of their religious beliefs.
Leaving Laganside Courthouse at the conclusion of the hearing Ashers manager Daniel McArthur said: "It has been a very stressful time for the family. We are thankful that God has sustained us through it all and we now await the outcome from the judge."
Mr Lee left quietly. When asked if he wished to make a comment, he said: "Not today, not ever."
Last week the McArthurs argued that they did not have a problem with Mr Lee, their concern was with the message on the cake as it was contrary to their Christian beliefs. They said that they did not know that Mr Lee was gay.
However, Mr Lee's barrister, Robin Allen QC, said it was obvious that a person bringing in a graphic supporting gay marriage was likely to be gay. "It is the use of the word gay in the phrase that is the cause of the differential treatment," he said. "But for the word gay this order would have been fulfilled."
Mr Allen said this was not a case where there was an immediate refusal to enter into a contract. "You have a case where contract was accepted, where possession was taken knowingly of the graphic, where the graphic was not contrary to the terms and conditions," he said. "Ashers did not advertise themselves as a business with religious scruples. Mrs McArthur did not feel so strongly about this that she refused to take Mr Lee's money or his graphic."
Yesterday, it emerged that the Equality Commission had increased the amount it had set aside to fight the case by £7,000.
Last week, it said the case would cost it up to £33,000, but the court heard the fund had increased to £40,000 as the case had gone on for longer than expected.
Representing Ashers, David Scoffield QC warned against forcing someone to "promote a cause with which they don't agree." He outlined hypothetical cases to the court, should the judge decide to rule in Mr Lee's favour: "If the plaintiff is right, a Muslim printer could not decline printing a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. An atheist baker could not decline baking a cake with the slogan God made the world in six days."
The QC said that even if they are rare, there are cases "where people are entitled to say 'I'm sorry, I'm not in conscience able to do that.'" "That is the proper balance of rights in this case," Mr Scoffield added.
Judge Brownlie has reserved judgment to allow time to consider the issues in this case. She is on holiday this week so will probably only begin to review the case next week. Given the complexities, it could be several weeks before the judgment is released.
Gareth Lee's case: what the lawyers argued
Businesses like Ashers “cannot be allowed to break contracts with individuals ... in breach of equality law. If that is allowed the rule of law is worth nothing.”
Even religious bodies, if they venture into commercial practice, cannot discriminate. “You must supply goods and services to everybody.”
If the firm had scruples about certain orders, it would be reasonable to suppose that a director would know. When Mr Lee did business with a director, “you would have thought those scruples would have been made aware at that stage, but they weren’t.”
“It is the use of the word gay in the phrase that is the cause of the differential treatment. But for the word gay this order would have been fulfilled.”
Ashers’ case: what the lawyers argued
“As a matter of pure domestic law, properly analysed, there is no discrimination in this case.”
“This is a freedom of conscience case. The evidence from the defendants is that they seek to live at all times in accordance with the teachings of the Bible. The religious beliefs form the very core of who they are.”
“There has been no discrimination against the plaintiff on the basis of any characteristics he possesses. The reason for declining was that they could not in conscience provide a product supporting a cause inconsistent with their sincerely held religious beliefs.”
“It would be an infringement of (the McArthur’s) Article 9 rights (the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion) to require them to promote a message with which they are fundamentally disagreed.”