Christian bakers lose gay cake case
The Christian owners of a bakery discriminated against a gay man when they refused to make a cake carrying a slogan that promoted same-sex marriage.
A judge at Belfast County Court found that Ashers Baking Company acted unlawfully by declining the request from gay rights activist Gareth Lee last year.
Ordering the company to pay damages of £500, District Judge Isobel Brownlie said religious beliefs could not dictate the law.
She said: "The defendants are entitled to continue to hold their genuine and deeply-held religious beliefs and to manifest them but, in accordance with the law, not to manifest them in the commercial sphere if it is contrary to the rights of others."
The Northern Ireland Equality Commission, which monitors compliance with the region's anti-discrimination laws, brought the landmark legal action on behalf of Mr Lee.
Ashers, which is owned by the McArthur family, was supported by the Christian Institute, which paid their legal costs.
Delivering her 90-minute judgment to a packed courtroom, District Judge Brownlie said there was a huge interest in the case, which has split public opinion in Belfast and beyond.
She said : " The defendants have unlawfully discriminated against the plaintiff on grounds of sexual discrimination.
"This is direct discrimination for which there can be no justification."
Mr Lee, a member of the LGBT advocacy group Queer Space, wanted a cake featuring Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie with the slogan Support Gay Marriage for a private function in Bangor, Co Down, to mark International Anti Homophobia Day.
He paid in full when placing the order at Ashers' Belfast branch but said he was stunned when, two days later, the company phoned to say it could not be processed.
In evidence, which was given in March, Mr Lee claimed to have been left feeling like a lesser person.
District Judge Brownlie accepted he had been treated "less favourably", contrary to the law.
She also said the bakers must have been aware that he was gay or associated with others who were gay and supported same-sex marriage because of the graphics he had supplied.
It was the word "gay" to which they objected.
She said: "My finding is that the defendants cancelled this order as they oppose same-sex marriage for the reason that they regard it as sinful and contrary to their genuinely-held religious beliefs.
"Same-sex marriage is inextricably linked to sexual relations between same-sex couples, which is a union of persons having a particular sexual orientation. The plaintiff did not share the particular religious and political opinion which confines marriage to heterosexual orientation.
"The defendants are not a religious organisation. They are conducting a business for profit and, notwithstanding their genuine religious beliefs, there are no exceptions available under the 2006 regulations which apply to this case."
Throughout the lengthy hearing, Ashers general manager Daniel McArthur sat beside his wife Amy in the well of the court alongside other family members. The couple smiled as the judgment was read out in full.
Speaking earlier, the 25-year-old said faith had helped sustain his family through a "difficult" time.
Mr Lee sat impassively on the other side of the dock, flanked by male and female friends.
The judge told the court she believed that if a heterosexual person had ordered a cake with graphics promoting "heterosexual marriage" or simply "marriage", the order would have been fulfilled.
"I have no doubt such a cake would have been provided. It is the word 'gay' to which the second and third defendants took exception, the connotation of gay marriage which the defendants regarded as sinful."
Karen and Colin McArthur, who co-founded the Co Antrim bakery, were not in the courtroom. Among the Christian supporters in the public gallery were former Stormont health minister Edwin Poots and DUP Lagan Valley MLA Paul Givan, who is seeking to introduce a "conscience clause" into equality legislation.
In their evidence, the McArthurs, who employ up to 80 people across six branches that deliver throughout the UK and Ireland, said they were opposed to gay marriage on religious grounds.
Karen McArthur said she initially accepted the order to avoid a confrontation but, as a born-again Christian, knew in her heart that she could not fulfil the request.
After discussing the issue with her husband and son Daniel, she telephoned Mr Lee and informed him the cake would not be made.
The Equality Commission 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 publicly-funded watchdog proceeded with the legal challenge on grounds that Ashers had discriminated against the customer on grounds of sexual orientation.
District Judge Brownlie said: "They (Ashers) are in a business supplying services to all. The law requires them to do just that."
She later added: "They were contracted on a commercial basis to bake and ice a cake. The plaintiff was not seeking support or endorsement."
Gay marriage remains a divisive issue in Northern Ireland and the devolved Assembly at Stormont has repeatedly rejected attempts to have it legalised.
The cake row has prompted Democratic Unionists to propose the controversial conscience clause in equality legislation - a move Sinn Fein has vowed to veto.
The judge said any change in the law was a matter for the devolved Assembly at Stormont.
Speaking outside the court, DUP MLA Paul Givan said he was disappointed by the ruling and accused the Equality Commission of using the "blunt instrument" of the courts to "drag" a Christian family through the legal process.
Daniel McArthur said he was "extremely disappointed" with the verdict.
He said: "We won't be closing down, we certainly don't think we've done anything wrong and we will be taking legal advice to consider our options for appeal."
Simon Calvert, deputy director of the Christian Institute, described the ruling as sad.
He said: "The case raises key issues of public importance regarding the protection of rights to freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience and religion."
Afterwards, Mr Lee, who has not spoken publicly about his experience, declined to address the media.
Michael Wardlow, from the Equality Commission, said: "It was very robust, very clear. It sends out the signal confirming the law as we understood it.
"It says to people who took part in commercial enterprises that they must act within the anti-discrimination framework."