Belfast Telegraph

Judge retires in 'gay cake' case

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Mr Allen said: "It is clear that if the word gay had been replaced by the word heterosexual, the order would have been accepted.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

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.

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