Updates from court as verdict delivered on high-profile legal action on a baker’s refusal to make a cake bearing a pro-gay marriage slogan
– BY CLAIRE WILLIAMSON AND DEBORAH MCALEESE – 19 MAY 2015
A Christian-run bakery which refused to make a cake bearing a pro-gay marriage slogan has been found guilty of discrimination after a landmark legal action at Belfast County Court.
Ashers Bakery, run by the McArthur family, was accused of discrimination after declining to produce a cake with an image of Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie below the motto Support Gay Marriage.
It had been ordered by gay rights activist Gareth Lee for a private function marking International Day Against Homophobia last May.
The Northern Ireland Equality Commission – which monitors compliance with the region’s anti-discrimination laws – brought the case on behalf of Mr Lee, a volunteer member of the LGBT advocacy group Queer Space.
Making the ruling the Judge said: “The defendants have unlawfully discriminated against the plaintiff on grounds of sexual discrimination.
“This is direct discrimination for which there is no justification.”
Evidence in the landmark ruling was heard over three days in March.
Judge Brownlie said the McArthur family held “genuine deeply held religious beliefs” but said that they must have been aware that Mr Lee was gay and were aware of the ongoing same sex marriage debate.
She said: “The defendants are not a religious organisation. They conduct a business for profit. I believe the defendants did have the knowledge that the plaintiff was gay.
“As much as I acknowledge their religious beliefs this is a business to provide service to all. The law says they must do that.
“The defendants are not a religious organisation. They are a business for profit. There are no exceptions available.
“The defendants have unlawfully discriminated on the grounds of sexual orientation.”
Among the Christian supporters in the courtroom was former Northern Ireland health minister Edwin Poots and DUP Lagan Valley MLA Paul Givan.
The judge said there were “competing human rights” in the case.
Both parties have agreed that £500 of damages are to be awarded to Mr Lee.
The lawyers have seven days to raise any issues with the Ashers judgement.
Here is the latest from our reporter Deborah McAleese @DeborahMcAleese in court:
- Both parties agree to £500 damages be paid to Mr Lee
- “I give in favour of the plaintiff” £500 damages requested
- “The defendants are entitled to hold and manifest their religious beliefs but in accordance with the law”
- She said to do otherwise “would be to allow religious belief dictate what the law is”
- Judge says the extent of 2006 regulations and 1998 order “limit the manifestation of the defendants’ religious beliefs”
- “The law on NI prohibits the defendants from acting as they did” judge tells court
- Sexual orientation is a highly protected right under ECHR as is religion” #Ashers
- Judge says a secular judge must be very wary of crossing the divide between the Church and state
- Judge says there are competing human rights in this case #AshersBakery
- “Whilst defendants have right to religious beliefs they are limited as to how they manifest them” judge says
- Considering ECHR Article 9 Judge says the defendants “have a Christian belief that’s sincerely held”
- Judge says even if persuaded Ashers were unaware of Mr Lee’s political beliefs she still would’ve found they treated him less favourably
- Judge says Ashers directly discriminated against Gareth Lee on political or religious grounds
- Judge says the defendant must have known the plaintiff (Gareth Lee) supported gay marriage
- Judge now considering if Ashers discriminated on grounds of political opinion or religious beliefs
- Judge says Gareth Lee was discriminated against on grounds of sexual orientation #Ashers
- This is direct discrimination for which there is no justification” #Ashers
- The defendants have unlawfully discriminated on the grounds of sexual orientation
- “The defendants are not a religious organisation. They are a business for profit. There are no exceptions available”
- “As much as I acknowledge their religious beliefs this is a business to provide service to all. The law says they must do that”
- “I believe the defendants did have the knowledge that the plaintiff was gay”
- “The defendants are not a religious organisation. They conduct a business for profit”
- Government regulations “protect people from having their sexual orientation used for having their business turned down”
- Judge says McArthurs “hold genuine deeply held religious beliefs”
- Judge tells court McArthurs said because of their Christian beliefs they could not promote same sex marriage
- “The defendants are Christians & regular church goers. They said they seek to live at all times in accordance with the doctrines of Bible”
- Gareth Lee claims he has been discriminated against contrary to Equality Act & Fair Employment, judge says
- Judge says the defendants deny they have discriminated unlawfully & say they are entitled to refuse an order on grounds of religious belief
- Gay rights activist Gareth Lee has arrived in the courtroom #Ashers
- “We have been sustained throughout by the knowledge God is faithful and in control”
- “We have always served everyone we cannot promote a cause that goes against what the bible says about marriage”
- “Because of the Equality Commission’s decision we have endured many anxious months”
- “We have tried to be guided in our actions by our Christian beliefs” Daniel McArthur tells the media outside Laganside Courthouse
- “We will not promote a cause against what the bible says about marriage” Daniel McArthur
- Daniel McArthur says his family have been “sustained by the knowledge God is faithful”
- The McArthur family, who employ 80 staff across nine branches and deliver across the UK and Ireland, have been supported by the Christian Institute, which has paid their legal fees.
Giving evidence, Mr Lee claimed he was left feeling like a lesser person when his order, which was paid in full, was turned down two days after being initially accepted.
Karen McArthur, a founder and company director at Ashers, told the court she had accepted the request to avoid embarrassment or confrontation but, as a born-again Christian, knew she could not fulfil it.
The high-profile case has divided public opinion in Belfast and beyond.
Same-sex marriage remains a contentious issue in Northern Ireland and attempts to have it legalised have been rejected four times by the devolved Assembly at Stormont.
The cake row has prompted a proposal to include a so-called “conscience clause” in equality legislation – a move Sinn Fein has vowed to veto.