The Christian owners of a bakery who refused to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage message directly discriminated against their customer, a lawyer for the Equality Commission said.
Directors at the Ashers Baking Company in Belfast have insisted they did not know what the sexual orientation of the gay rights campaigner was when declining his order.
The McArthur family, who run Ashers, are seeking to overturn a court judgment which found they acted unlawfully by rejecting the order placed by LGBT activist Gareth Lee in 2014 based on their religious conviction that the slogan was sinful.
“Mr Lee wanted to be associated with the class of person who have same sex orientation by purchasing this cake,” said commission lawyer Robin Allen QC. “He was not allowed to do that by the defendants. They would have allowed him to be associated with persons of opposite sex orientation by, for instance, letting him have a cake which did not have the word gay on it.”
He said it was very easy to say the case involving a £36.50 cake was entirely trivial but the legal profession recognised its gravity. “If you are gay you have lived in a world of prejudice for a very long time and you want to be able to engage with the world without it mattering a hoot what your sexual orientation is.”
He said the McArthur family personally objected to the idea of civil marriage between same sex partners. “They were objecting to the use of a particular sexual orientation in that message and that is what made it direct discrimination, because of that objection.”
Ashers’ owners were ordered to pay £500 damages after a county court judge ruled they directly discriminated against Mr Lee in refusing to make him a cake featuring Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie with the phrase Support Gay Marriage for a private function marking International Day Against Homophobia two years ago.
Mr Lee, a member of the LGBT advocacy group Queer Space, paid the £36.50 in full at Ashers’ Belfast city centre branch, but received a phone call two days later and was told the company could not fulfil his order.
David Scoffield QC represented the McArthur family at Belfast’s Court of Appeal and said the person who took the order had no idea what Mr Lee’s sexual orientation was and had never heard of Queer Space.
He said the alleged discrimination was not against Mr Lee, it was against the message, but the law only covered harm caused to an individual.
Mr Allen said conscience had to be accepted at face value by the court but its application risked making the law defunct. “If you do it for evangelical Free Presbyterians saying they cannot supply goods you have to do it for all the other 148 accepted religious beliefs in Northern Ireland and then some,” he said. “At that point the prohibition on discrimination on sexual orientation becomes a dead letter. The prohibition on discrimination…on political opinions becomes a dead letter.”
Ashers, a name with biblical connotations, has six branches in Northern Ireland.
Picture: Daniel and Amy McArthur of Ashers Bakery. (Stephen Kilkenny/PA).