Man sues bakery over refusal to make ‘same-sex marriage’ cake
Order for ‘Bert and Ernie’ cake with ‘Support Gay Marriage’ slogan was cancelled by Christian-run firm Ashers
Ashers, which has six shops employing 62 people, is being 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. Photograph: Getty Images
The Christian-run bakery which refused to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan is an international million-pound business that must not be allowed to break a commercial contract with a customer, a court heard today.
A judge was told a biblical characterisation of the legal battle should be reversed to depict the man whose order was cancelled by Ashers as the real David fighting against a “Goliath” company.
Counsel for gay rights activist Gareth Lee, who is suing the firm for alleged discrimination, also claimed there was no mention of religious scruples on a cake-making advertising leaflet that also featured a witch on a creation celebrating Halloween.
Ashers Bakery, run by the McArthur family, has been plunged into a civil action pitting the owners’ beliefs against sexual orientation issues that has attracted worldwide headlines.
Last year it refused to make an iced cake for Mr Lee with an image of Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie below the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’.
The Co Antrim-based firm refunded his money, saying that fulfilling the order would go against their strongly held Christian views.
Mr Lee’s challenge has been backed by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, with the body insisting the case raises points of public importance about the extent to which suppliers of goods and services can refuse on the grounds of sexuality, religious belief and political opinion.
Arriving for the two-day hearing at Belfast County Court, Ashers general manager Daniel McArthur had insisted outside that the problem was with the message and not the customer.
But in a packed Courtroom number 12, Robin Allen QC, for Mr Lee, argued that the Equality Act does not make exception for scruples.
In his opening remarks he urged Judge Isobel Brownlie to decide the case on the law “and not as politicians, clergymen, clergywomen, editorials, bloggers or any of the general public say you should do so”.
At heart of the dispute, he said, was a simple commercial exchange for an iced cake — one of 1,600 such transactions by the bakery last year.
The barrister described how the challenge has been pitched as a “David and Goliath challenge” because the Equality Commission has rowed in behind his client. But he argued that Ashers operate out of seven shops across Northern Ireland as well as running a substantial online cake-making business.
He stressed that the firm, which has more than 60 staff, also supplies convenience stores and delivers cakes in the UK and Republic of Ireland.
The most up-to-date accounts for the company reveal assets of more than £1 million, the court heard.
Mr Allen claimed: “This is a case about a single man who had a contract for a cake which was accepted by a substantial, international million pound business of many employees.
“You might say that Mr Lee is the David and Ashers the Goliath.”
Leaving aside the biblical references, the barrister insisted that a transaction had taken place which had to be honoured.
“A large business like Ashers operating in the commercial sphere cannot be allowed to break a contract with a single individual over small sums of money in a way that is tortious and in breach of equality law,” he submitted.
“If that is allowed and one takes into account the relevant size of the different organisations and persons in this litigation the rule of law is worth nothing.”
Mr Lee had ordered the cake for an event to mark International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
He eventually secured a replacement from another bakery which accepted the business.
The court was told the gay rights activist had been a regular customer at Asher’s shop on Belfast’s Royal Avenue before the incident last May.
He had picked up a leaflet promoting its printed cake-building operation and decided to place an order.
No mention was made on the advertisement of any limitations, or that it was subject to religious beliefs, according to Mr Allen.
Contending that the pamphlet suggested the opposite, he disclosed: “The first image that is actually on the leaflet is of an iced cake celebrating Halloween with a picture of a green witch.
“Nobody picking up that leaflet would think there are particular religious scruples about the bakery.”
When Mr Lee went into the store and paid just over £36 for his cake with the pro-gay marriage message on behalf of an organisation called Queer Space the contract was in place, the court heard.
He had no idea at that stage that his order caused any problems. It was only following a subsequent discussion between Mr McArthur’s wife Amy and his mother Karen McArthur that concerns emerged, Mr Allen suggested.
He claimed Karen McArthur, a central director in the company along with her husband Colin, had taken Mr Lee’s business.
The barrister also pointed out that Colin McArthur, who is a defendant in the action along with his wife, will not be available to give evidence or face cross-examination.
Even though Mr Lee managed to get another cake made, the affair was said to have caused him inconvenience and embarrassment.
Mr Allen also referred to a press interview where Daniel McArthur reportedly said only five of Ashers 62 staff are church-going Christians, with most employees knowing nothing about the family’s faith.
Stressing he was not challenging the McArthurs’ beliefs, the barrister said the case was about commerce and discrimination.
“If any members of the McArthur family were unwilling to print what they had a contract with Mr Lee to print on the icing of the cake, we know there are over 50 people employed by their organisation of no obvious Christian scruples about the message on the cake,” he said.
“It has not been suggested by the defendants that they ever considered whether somebody else could be involved in the process, they never considered whether they could sub-contract the business or whether they could disengage personally from the business.”
Neither was any discussion held with Mr Lee about the possibility of making the cake for him on the proviso that the Ashers logo did not feature — making it clear the firm did not support his views, according to counsel.
“Mr Lee would have been perfectly happy, he didn’t wish to know what the Ashers’ views were about same-sex marriage, or sexual orientation or homosexuality. “He had no interest in that whatsoever. He simply wanted a piece of work done for his purposes.”
The hearing continues.