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

A gay man whose order for a cake bearing a pro-gay marriage slogan was refused by a Christian bakery has told a court the rejection left him feeling like a lesser person.

Northern Ireland's Equality Commission is supporting a legal action against family-run Ashers Bakery on behalf of gay rights activist Gareth Lee, whose order was declined.

Belfast-based Ashers, which is owned by the McArthur family, refused to make a cake with an image of Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie below the motto Support Gay Marriage.

Giving evidence at Belfast County Court Mr Lee said he was left "shocked" and in "disbelief" when one of the owners, Karen McArthur, rang him and told him she would not be processing the order he had already paid for.

"It made me feel I'm not worthy, a lesser person and to me that was wrong," he said.

Mr Lee, a volunteer member of LGBT advocacy group Queer Space, had ordered the cake for a private function in Bangor, Co Down staged to mark International Day Against Homophobia last May.

The order for the cake was placed shortly after the Stormont Assembly turned down, for the third time, a bid to legalise gay marriage in Northern Ireland. Mr Lee said the design of the birthday cake was meant to be "fun and topical".

Mr Lee said when he first placed the order with Mrs McArthur the exchange was "perfect".

"I was dealt with professionally, courteously and had no concept whatsoever that anything might be wrong," he said.

The court earlier heard that in the days after the order was placed Mrs McArthur had expressed concern about the requested design with her daughter-in-law, Amy, and the matter was then discussed with her son, Daniel.

Mrs McArthur then phoned Mr Lee to inform him the company would not be processing his order on religious grounds.

"She was extremely apologetic but the message was an extremely difficult one for me to accept," said Mr Lee.

Under cross-examination by the McArthurs' lawyer David Scoffield QC, Mr Lee acknowledged that Mrs McArthur did not use the words that she felt he was "not worthy" of their service.

"It was not in those words but the outworking of that message made me feel that way," he said.

Mr Scoffield said he understood Mr Lee felt his rights had been infringed. But he urged him put himself in the McArthurs' shoes and asked if he understood they felt their right to express their religious beliefs were also at stake.

Mr Lee insisted he had always been open to discussion that would have avoided a court case and said if he was a tradesperson his guiding principle would be to "obey the law".

Before he took the stand, Mr Lee's lawyer Robin Allen QC suggested the bakery's refusal to make the cake was as unjustifiable as a postman declining to post a letter.

Opening the case before district judge Isobel Brownlie, Mr Allen insisted that baking a cake did not mean the bakers supported any message the cake might carry.

The barrister highlighted that the proposed design would not have had an Ashers logo on it.

He then compared the baking of a cake to a postman delivering a letter or a printer printing a poster.

''A postman taking a letter to the door or a printer carrying out a printing job - nobody would say that involved promoting or support,'' he said.

''It's simply a functional relationship, a working relationship.''

The lawyer also noted the publicity around the case and highlighted that politicians, church figures, bloggers and others had expressed opinions on the matter.

But the barrister insisted the case must be judged on the facts alone.

''Law must not be determined by those who shout loudest,'' he said.

Mr Allen said he was not in court to challenge the McArthur family's faith.

''This is a case about commerce and discrimination,'' he said.

The case has sharply divided public opinion in Northern Ireland and beyond, making headlines across the world.

In the wake of the bakery's refusal to provide the service, the commission, a state-funded watchdog body, took on the case in conjunction with Mr Lee.

Initially, the commission asked the bakery to acknowledge that it had breached legislation and offer ''modest'' damages to the customer.

When Ashers refused, the commission proceeded with the legal action.

Arriving at court ahead of the hearing, Daniel McArthur, flanked by wife Amy, said he was putting his trust in God.

''Ashers Baking Company is, and always has been, willing to serve any and every customer who comes through our doors," he said.

"We love serving people.

''Our problem with producing the cake we were asked to make last year was with the message, not the customer.

''We just didn't want to be forced to use our creative skills to help endorse and promote a campaign message that went against our sincerely held religious beliefs. We are just trying to be faithful to the Bible.

''We think it is wrong to use the laws to force anyone to say something that they oppose and hope that the court will take the same view.''

Mr McArthur and his mother Karen are due to give evidence tomorrow.

Mr Allen said some had portrayed Ashers as David' to the Equality Commission's Goliath'.

But he stressed that the case involved a dispute between Mr Lee and a bakery which was a £1 million international enterprise.

''In circumstances such as these, you might say Mr Lee was David and Ashers Goliath,'' he said.

Outlining his view of the facts, Mr Allen said Mr Lee had used the bakery in Royal Avenue in Belfast city centre ''regularly'' before the incident.

He said his client had seen a leaflet in the shop advertising a service whereby images could be printed in edible icing on a cake.

He said there was nothing on the leaflet which suggested a limitation on the service due to ''religious scruples''.

He noted that one of the images on the leaflet was of a Halloween cake with a green witch on it.

The Ashers case has prompted the Democratic Unionist Party to propose a law change at Stormont that would provide an ''equality clause'' which would essentially enable businesses to refuse to provide certain services on religious grounds.

Sinn Fein has vowed to oppose the Private Member's Bill.

Mr Allen acknowledged that a ''section of society'' wanted amendments to the law.

He said that was a legitimate objective to pursue but stressed that the case before the court had to be judged on the law as it stands.

''It's a complete fallacy to think you can secure an amendment to regulations through defending a litigation,'' he argued.

Mr Allen told Judge Brownlie that it was her job to apply the law, not make the law.

''You can't second-guess the legislature,'' he said.

Mr Allen said if companies were allowed to break contracts with individuals then ''the law is worth nothing''.

He added: ''The rule of law says there shall be no discrimination in the commercial sphere.''

The barrister insisted that Ashers was not an ''explicitly religious'' business and referred to an interview Daniel McArthur gave to a newspaper in which he claimed the majority of his 60-plus workforce were unaware of his family's faith.

Mr Allen stressed the importance of anti-discrimination legislation in Northern Ireland, given its history of sectarian strife.

He said the views of religious groups had been carefully considered when drawing up the current regulations and a line had been set in regard to what constituted a breach.

''There has been a democratic process in reaching a legislative solution to where that demarcation should be drawn,'' he said.

He acknowledged that other countries may legislate differently but again emphasised the particular necessity for robust equality laws in Northern Ireland.

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