Man at centre of ‘gay cake’ case facing heavy burden, court hears
Activist Gareth Lee took action against Ashers bakery over gay rights message refusal
Gay rights activist Gareth Lee, leaves the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
The case surrounds the refusal of the Christian owners of Ashers Bakery to make a product iced with the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’ after it was ordered by gay rights activist Gareth Lee in May 2014.
Mr Lee took legal action and the bakery was found by the District Court in Belfast to have discriminated against him by refusing to make the cake.
The bakers lost an appeal against that ruling in the Court of Appeal in October 2016. It is now the subject of a Supreme Court hearing in Belfast.
At the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast in Wednesday, Mr Lee’s barrister Robin Allen QC said: “This is what was a relatively small incident in his life which has become enormously significant and continues to be so.
“That is a heavy burden to bear for one individual.”
Mr Allen said the equality commission was seeking “legal certainty” and stepped in because only a millionaire could afford to litigate this case.
“In the context of this case it is super-difficult because in relation to the provision of goods, facilities and services you are talking about a prohibition on discrimination on transactions which may range from a box of matches up to a long-term contract.
“In many cases, particularly true in a divided community, prohibition in relation to goods and services is a task which is difficult to police through a commission or litigation.”
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK or Ireland where same-sex marriage is outlawed, with the DUP staunchly opposed.
Mr Lee, a member of the LGBT advocacy group Queer Space, requested a cake featuring Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie for a private function marking International Day Against Homophobia.
His £36.50 order was accepted and he paid in full but, two days later, the company called to say it could not proceed due to the message requested.
Northern Ireland’s attorney general John Larkin QC has said the Court of Appeal ruling on Ashers was wrong.
Evangelical Christians Daniel and Amy McArthur, who own Ashers, have argued through their lawyers that the state is penalising them, with the courts effectively forcing them to make a cake whose message they disagree with as a matter of religious conscience.
“Mr Lee does not have the right to compel Ashers to express a message to deliver content which is inconsistent with their religious beliefs,” Mr Larkin said.
He added the McArthur family could avail of the European Convention on Human Rights to refuse to express a political opinion which was contrary to their religious beliefs, warning there was no objective or reasonable justification for interference.
He contended nothing in Northern Ireland constitutional law forced a choice between being the courier or conduit of a message to which they objected on religious grounds or exposure to civil liability in the courts.
One of the Supreme Court judges, Lady Hale, said people should not expect their answer on the case immediately.
“This is not to say that we don’t hope that it might be before the summer but these cases are by definition complex and difficult and there are five people who have to make their minds up so that... takes more time than simply the jury verdict, even at the end of a long trial.”