The state is obliged to protect people in genuine cases of conscientious objection, a lawyer in the so-called “gay cake” case in Belfast has contended.
The North's Equality Commission is supporting gay rights activist Gareth Lee in a civil case against Ashers Baking Company for refusing to sell him a cake with the message "Support Gay Marriage". The cake was also to feature the Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie.
In Belfast County Court on Thursday before Judge Isobel Brownlie, Mr Lee said he believed as a gay man the refusal to sell him the cake was because of his sexual orientation. The refusal made him feel a "lesser person", he told the court.
Members of the McArthur family of Ashers Baking Company made their case on Friday with their lawyer, David Scoffield QC, contending it was “plainly not a sexual orientation case”, but a “freedom of conscience case”.
“If a heterosexual couple had placed the same order they would have got the same response,” he added.
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,” he said.
“The reason why the order was declined was because of the content and had nothing to do with a feature of the person making the order, or those with which he was associated,” added Mr Scoffield.
Karen McArthur, a director of Ashers, said she took the initial order and money from Mr Lee in May last year because she did want to have a scene in the shop. “I did not want to embarrass him or have a confrontation in the bakery,” she said.
She realised from the outset, however, that she could not fulfil the order. “I knew in my heart that I could not put that message on the cake,” she told the court.
After consulting with her family she phoned Mr Lee 48 hours later to say she could not carry out the order. Mr Lee was reimbursed.
“The problem was with the message on the cake because, as a Christian, I do not support gay marriage,” said Ms McArthur.
She said she had been a born-again Christian since the age of seven and sought to please God in how she led her life.
The court heard nine members of the McArthur family work in the company. Ms McArthur and her husband Colin are the only two shareholders with voting rights on how Ashers is run.The couple belong to Dunseverick Baptist Church while their three sons are members of different Protestant churches.
Daniel McArthur, the 25-year-old general manager of Ashers said 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.”
Ashers has six shops and employs 80 people,
During the hearing Robin Allen, QC for Mr Lee, citing one of the company’s leaflets, queried why Ashers was willing to bake Halloween cakes. “Witches are hardly consistent with promoting Christian beliefs,” he said.
The case is expected to conclude on Monday.