Ashers Bakery found guilty of discrimination

Christian-owned Belfast bakery refused to make cake carrying a pro-gay marriage slogan

 

Christian-owned Ashers Bakery which refused to make a cake carrying a pro gay marriage slogan has been found guilty of discrimination after a landmark legal action at Belfast County Court.

Judge Isobel Brownlie returned a verdict on Tuesday morning in favour of gay rights advocate Gareth Lee and the North’s Equality Commission in the so-called Bert and Ernie gay cake case.

Ashers, which has six shops employing up to 80 people, was prosecuted for refusing to bake a cake with a slogan stating “Support Gay Marriage”. It was also to feature the Sesame Street puppets, Bert and Ernie, with their arms around one another.

The case was taken by Mr Lee, who in May last year wanted the cake baked on behalf of the Belfast lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender voluntary group QueerSpace. He claimed he suffered discrimination. He was supported by the North’s Equality Commission.

In her 90-minute judgment, Judge Brownlie said that the Ashers Baking Company run by the McArthur family was not a religious organisation. “It was in business for profit”.

She found that Ashers were “guilty of unlawful discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation”. She said this was “direct discrimination for which there can be no justification”.

She fined Ashers £500.

Mr Lee, his supporters and senior officials from the Equality Commission sat on one side of the court as Judge Brownlie read her judgment. Her ruling was greeted in silence.

The 25-year-old managing director of Ashers Daniel McArthur and his wife Amy sat on the other side of the court. The public gallery was also close to full with supporters both of Mr Lee and the McArthurs. Several lawyers also came into the court to hear Judge Brownlie’s judgment.

During the initial three-day hearing in March, Mr Lee said the refusal to bake the cake made him feel a “lesser person”. He said he felt the refusal had to do with his sexual orientation. “I assumed that it was because of the message, that it was because of my sexuality,” he said.

“It is not very pleasant to be considered not worthy of service because somebody else says they are Christian. It does not make me feel good in any respect,” Mr Lee told the court. “It made me feel I am not worthy; that I am a lesser person and to me that is wrong.”

His senior counsel Robin Allen, QC, said that contract law was “at the heart of the case”. He said the law required certainty and was not about people holding “subjective” beliefs.

He argued that the “law becomes entirely fragile” if a contract could be broken for a subjective reason, such as a person holding a view on gay marriage. It would “undermine the whole of contract law”, he said.

Mr Allen also rejected the argument that the case was about the message on the cake rather than the sexual orientation of Mr Lee. The fact that the cake was to contain the message “Support Gay Marriage” and was ordered on behalf of the gay rights group QueerSpace meant that Mr Lee “was likely to be gay”.

“It could not be more obvious that this is about sexual orientation,” said Mr Allen. If the message had been “support heterosexual marriage” the order would have been carried out. “But for the word ‘gay’ this order would have been fulfilled,” said Mr Allen.

“I emphasise that at no point were (the McArthurs) being asked to support Mr Lee’s message on the cake,” he added.

Daniel McArthur said during the case that they could not carry out the order because gay marriage was “contrary to the Bible”.

“Before God we felt this was something we could not do. We were not doing this in defiance of the law,” he said. “Our Christian faith is of the utmost importance, it is how we live our lives.”

The family’s lawyer David Scoffield, QC argued that putting the message on the cake was an act of promotion. He contended the McArthurs were being asked to promote a cause which was “fundamentally inconsistent with their deeply held beliefs”.

Mr Scoffield said it would be the “antithesis of democracy” for the McArthurs to be compelled to “promote a cause” with which they strongly disagreed.

“Once a genuine case of conscientious objection is established the state is obliged to protect the rights of the objectors,” he added.

“The defendants neither knew nor cared about Mr Lee’s sexual orientation or his religious beliefs, if any, or his political opinions,” said Mr Scoffield.

Judge Brownlie ruled in favour of Mr Lee, the Equality Commission and the arguments put forward by their senior counsel, Mr Allen.

Outside the court Daniel McArthur said he was disappointed with the judgment. He indicated that he and his family are now weighing up whether or not to appeal the ruling.

“We don’t think we have done anything wrong and we will be taking legal advice to consider our options,” he said while standing beside his wife Amy.

Gareth Lee made no comment but his lawyer Robin Alllen, QC, on his behalf said, “It is not easy being a pathfinder in a discrimination case. It is a difficult task and he is very glad that the case has finished and that the result vindicates the decision that he made to seek the support of the Equality Commission.”

Mr Allen added that Mr Lee would be donating the £500 damages to charity.

Before going into the court to hear the judgment Mr McArthur said the cake order was declined in May last year because of the “Support Gay Marriage” slogan.

“We did not do this because of anything to do with the customer but because of the message – a message supporting a cause with which I and my family fundamentally disagree,” he said. “We happily serve everyone but we cannot promote a cause that goes against what the Bible says about marriage. We have tried to be guided in our actions by our Christian beliefs.”

Added Mr McArthur, “It has been a difficult time for our family. A year ago, we could not have anticipated that a polite refusal would result in our family being pursued through the courts by a publicly-funded quango. Because of the Equality Commission’s decision we have endured many anxious months.

“But we have been sustained throughout by the knowledge that God is faithful. And we have been greatly encouraged by the huge public support we have received – not only here but from around the world. We have also been contacted by many people of other faiths and of no faith, and from people who support same-sex marriage as well as people who support traditional marriage.”

Asked for her views on Tuesday afternoon on the ruling, former president Mary McAleese said there was a lesson to be learned from the case.

“The most important lesson to learn from that is the absolute importance of having laws to protect vulnerable minority groups and how effective those laws can be in protecting the vulnerable,” she said in an interview with The Irish Times.

“And here are we on Friday being offered the opportunity to impact on our gay community which has been so vulnerable, so branded, so isolated: we have the opportunity to offer them the fullest constitutional legal protection - to give them first-class citizenship and not leave them consigned to second-class citizenship, so that what’s it proved to me the importance of law.”