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Judgement reserved in Ashers 'gay cake' case

By Deborah McAleese and Lesley-Ann McKeown

A judge has retired to consider her verdict in the case against a Christian bakery which refused to make a cake carrying a pro gay marriage slogan.

Adjourning the case, district judge Isobel Brownlie told Belfast County Court she would reserve her judgement so that "full consideration" could be given to the evidence, which was presented over three days.

Judge Brownlie said: "It is not a straightforward area of the law.

"Obviously this is a case in which I propose to reserve my judgement."

The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland brought the landmark case against Ashers Bakery on behalf of a gay rights activist whose order was refused.

The family-run bakery, which delivers across the UK and Ireland, turned down the request for a cake with an image of Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie below the motto Support Gay Marriage.

It had been ordered for a private function marking International Day Against Homophobia last May.

Gareth Lee, a volunteer member of the LGBT advocacy group Queer Space, claimed he was left feeling like a lesser person when his order was turned down two days after it had been paid in full.

The Equality Commission, which has a statutory obligation to monitor compliance with equality laws in Northern Ireland, had initially asked for the bakery on Belfast's Royal Avenue to acknowledge it had breached legislation and offer "modest" damages to the customer.

When Ashers refused, the commission, a publicly funded watchdog, proceeded with the legal action.

During the hearing at Laganside court complex, Robin Allen QC, representing Mr Lee, claimed the word 'gay' had been the at the heart of the issue.

He said Ashers' refusal was based on a political opinion opposing efforts to change the law in Northern Ireland, where same-sex marriage is banned, because it was contrary to the bakers' religious beliefs.

Mr Allen said: "It is clear that if the word gay had been replaced by the word heterosexual, the order would have been accepted.

"It is clear that if the word gay had been missing it would have been accepted."

The high-profile case has divided public opinion across Northern Ireland and beyond and the public gallery was packed with both Christian and gay rights campaigners.

It had been scheduled to finish last Friday but was extended into a third day.

The court was also told that Ashers, which has 80 employees, did not promote itself as an overtly religious business and many of their staff had no particular religious affiliation.

Mr Allen added: "Ashers did not advertise themselves as a business having religious scruples but did advertise in such a way that they did not have religious scruples."

The lawyer argued there had been a clear breach of contract and rejected claims the bakery was being asked to endorse gay marriage.

They could have "positively dissociated" themselves from the Support Gay Marriage message to be printed on the cake, he said.

Last week Karen McArthur, an Ashers director, said she had accepted the order to avoid embarrassment or confrontation but knew in her heart she would not be able to fulfil the request.

After more than 48 hours later, and following consultations with her husband Colin, also a company director, she telephoned Mr Lee informing him that his cake would not be made.

Mr Allen said: "Mrs McArthur did not feel so strongly about this that she refused to take his money and his graphic."

The Equality Commission was also described as the "guardian" of anti-discrimination laws and was duty-bound to defend them, the court was told.

Here's the latest from our reporter in court Deborah McAleese @DeborahMcAleese:

  • Legal arguments have completed. Judge has reserved judgement
  • He adds: "it's immaterial whether I believe in gay marriage or not"
  • "Barristers are required by legal services act to take any brief we are competent to perform, provided it's at a fair price" Mr Allen says
  • "They were capable of fulfilling this contract without themselves participating in it" Mr Lee's lawyer tells court
  • "Mrs McArthur did not feel so strongly about this that she refused to take Mr Lee's money & his graphic" says Mr Allen QC
  •  "In this case we do not have a situation where there's a refusal to enter into a contract. We have a case where contract was accepted"
  • "If Mr Lee was asked 'whose message is support gay marriage?'  It could never have been answered 'it's Ashers'" Mr Allen QC says
  • "They were simply being asked to make a cake, to carry out a mechanical process", court is told
  • "At no point were they being asked to support Mr Lee's message on the cake" Mr Allen QC tells court
  • "It can't be more obvious" discrimination was on grounds of sexual orientation. "But for word gay this order would have been fulfilled"
  • "It is the word gay in the phrase that is the course of the differential treatment" Mr Allen QC tells court
  • Mr Allen QC says Ashers' claim they serve gays on a daily basis is "neither here not there ... It's the limits imposed on that relationship"
  • Mr Allen QC says it was obvious that the person bringing in a graphic to Ashers in support of gay marriage was likely to be gay
  • Mr Allen QC suggests Ashers should have limited their cake baking services to birthdays and sports cakes.
  • Mr Allen says "there can be no doubt that what Mr Lee asked for falls within  (Ashers' ) terms & conditions"
  • "If someone enters a contract & then says it's inconsistent with my beliefs, then the law of contract doesn't work", Mr Allen QC says
  •  "If Muslim printer is not prepared to print cartoon of Prophet Muhammad he must not offer services full stop printing cartoons," Mr Allen QC
  • "This case is direct discrimination" Mr Lee's lawyer says
  • "The Equality Commission has a statutory duty to uphold non discrimination law", Mr Lee's lawyer tells court
  • Ashers' lawyer has finished summing up. Mr Lee's counsel now to submit his final arguments.
  • Ashers' counsel says that if plaintiff is right an Atheist baker could not decline to make a cake with message God made the world in 6 days
  • "It's an infringement of Article 9 rights to require them to promote a message with which they fundamentally disagree" Mr Scoffield QC says
  • Ashers lawyer says the bakery "would be promoting the message (support gay marriage) by producing a product that promotes that message"
  • "A Christian Catholic baker could not decline a cake with message calling for abortion to be legalised" Mr Scoffield QC for Ashers adds
  • "If the plaintiff is right then a gay baker could not decline to make a cake with message 'gay sex is an abomination'", Ashers' lawyer says
  • "The protection of one right" leads to the "total disregard of another" in this case, lawyer for Ashers tells court
  • "Defendants were being asked to promote a cause against their deeply held religious beliefs" counsel for Ashers tells court
  • Ashers lawyer tells court "when someone is being forced to promote a cause with which they don't agree is taking it a step too far"
  • County Court judge Isobel Brownlie is coming in from holiday for today's hearing. Both sides due to make final submissions.

Same-sex marriage remains a deeply divisive issue in Northern Ireland and attempts to have it legalised have been repeatedly rejected by the devolved Assembly at Stormont.

The cake row has prompted a proposal to include a so-called "conscience clause" in equality legislation.

Earlier, David Scoffield QC, representing Ashers Bakery, said it was a clear "promotion" case.

He said: "This is not merely an issue of fact. The defendants subsequently would feel they were supporting the cause.

"They would be doing something that would be against their conscience."

Mr Scoffield said if the plaintiff was right it would have far reaching consequences for shop owners.

A Muslim printer could not decline to print cartoons about the prophet Mohammed; an atheist could not turn down an order claiming God made the world; a gay baker could not say no to a product saying gay sex was an abomination; and a Roman Catholic printer could not decline to make leaflets calling for the legalisation of abortion on demand, he argued.

The case has been adjourned but Judge Brownlie gave no indication as to when her verdict would be delivered.

Outside the court Daniel McArthur, general manager of Ashers, said the case had taken its toll.

He said: "The case has now concluded. We are very thankful for those who have supported us.

"It has been a stressful time for our family but most of all we are thankful God has sustained us through it all and we now await the verdict and the outcome from the judge."

Mr Lee did not comment as he left the court.

Day 2 Ashers gay cake case: 'Before God, it was something we could not do'

The Christian owners of a bakery at the centre of a landmark legal battle have said they could not "stand before God" and produce a cake supporting gay marriage.

During day two of the high-profile case between religious beliefs and equality rights, three members of the McArthur family, who own Ashers Bakery, took to the witness box to defend their decision to refuse an order for a cake from a gay activist on the basis of their Christian values.

The company's two directors, husband and wife Colin and Karen McArthur, attended court with their manager son Daniel and his wife Amy.

Sitting on the opposite side of the courtroom was Gareth Lee, the gay activist whose order for a cake with the slogan Support Gay Marriage and an image of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street, was refused by the McArthurs.

Mr Lee launched a civil case against Ashers, with the assistance of the Equality Commission, on the basis that their refusal to produce the cake was unlawful discrimination. Taking to the witness box to give evidence, Daniel McArthur said the order was declined because as a Christian he believes that "gay marriage is contradictory to the Bible".

"We felt as Christians we could not in conscience put it on a cake. We believe the business is being given to us by God and how we use it is on our shoulders," said Daniel McArthur. He added: "We weren't doing it in defiance of the law. We don't know the ins and outs of the law. Our Christian faith is the utmost importance to us. It is how we run our entire lives and bring our families up. Before God, it is not something we could do."

Daniel McArthur, a member of Trinity Reformed Presbyterian Church, said he contacted an elder in the church to ask him for his thoughts on the matter.

His mother Karen McArthur, a company director, initially accepted the order from Mr Lee in their Belfast shop in May last year.

However, after discussions with her husband, son and daughter-in-law, she contacted Mr Lee a few days later to tell him they could not fulfil his order because they were a Christian business. Mrs McArthur told the court that even as she accepted payment from Mr Lee she "knew in my heart I would not be able to fulfil the order".

When asked why she took Mr Lee's money, signed the order and gave him a receipt when she was not planning to fulfil the order she said she "did not want to embarrass him or have a confrontation in the bakery". Mrs McArthur said her problem was with the message on the cake, because, as a Christian, she does not support gay marriage.

"We seek to live at all times in accordance with the doctrines and teachings of the Bible. I have been a born-again Christian since I was seven. I love The Lord and I seek to please him in the way I live my life," she told the court.

While Mrs McArthur knew immediately she would not be able to provide the cake to Mr Lee, her husband Colin McArthur said he struggled with the decision. "On that day I didn't make a clinical decision. I was examining my heart. I was wrestling it over in my heart and mind," he told the court.

Colin McArthur said he was made aware of the issue when his wife came home from work "deeply troubled. We discussed how we could stand before God and bake a cake like this promoting a case like this... It was a family decision," he added.

Counsel for Ashers bakery, David Scoffield QC, told the court that "as a matter of pure domestic law, properly analysed, there is no discrimination in this case."

"This is a clear case where 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," Mr Scoffield said.

The case has been adjourned to Monday morning.

What they said...

Karen McArthur: director of Ashers

"I knew in my heart that I could not put that message on the cake. As a Christian, I do not support gay marriage."

Daniel McArthur: general manager of Ashers

"We felt as Christians we could not put that message on a cake. We knew the decision in our conscience as Christians was one that we had to make. That's why I said to mum regardless, as Christians we are bound by what we believe."

David Schofield: barrister representing Ashers

"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."

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