A Christian-owned bakery which refused to make a cake carrying a pro-gay marriage slogan has been found guilty of discrimination after a landmark legal action.
The Northern Ireland Equality Commission brought the case against Ashers Baking Company on behalf of Gareth Lee, the gay rights activist whose order was declined.
Karen and Colin McArthur
Giving her ruling at Belfast County Court today District Judge Isobel Brownlie said: “The defendants have unlawfully discriminated against the plaintiff on grounds of sexual discrimination.
“This is direct discrimination for which there can be no justification.”
Mr Lee, a member of the LGBT advocacy group Queer Space, had wanted a cake featuring Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie with the slogan Support Gay Marriage for a private function marking International Anti Homophobia Day.
The high profile legal case, which divided public opinion in Belfast and beyond, was heard over three days in March.
Judge Brownlie said she was satisfied the McArthur family had “genuine and deeply held religious beliefs” but said they must have been aware that Mr Lee was gay and were aware of the ongoing same sex marriage debate.
The judge added: “They must have known or had the perception that the plaintiff was gay.
“They must have known that the plaintiff supported gay marriage or associated with others who supported gay marriage.”
He paid in full when he placed the order at Ashers’ Belfast branch but said he was left stunned two days later, when the company phoned to say it could not be processed.
Giving evidence, Mr Lee claimed he was left feeling like a lesser person.
Judge Brownlie said: “They (Ashers) are in a business supplying services to all. The law requires them to do just that.”
The courtroom in Belfast’s Laganside complex was packed as the reserved judgement was delivered.
Ashers general manager Daniel McArthur and his wife Amy sat in the body of the court supported by other family members. The couple smiled as the lengthy ruling was read out in full.
Mr Lee sat on the other side of the dock.
Among the Christian supporters was former Stormont health minister Edwin Poots and DUP Lagan Valley MLA Paul Givan, who is seeking to introduce a ’conscience clause’ into equality legislation.
Members of the McArthur family, who employ up to 80 people across six branches that deliver throughout the Ireland and UK, said they were opposed to gay marriage on religious grounds.
Karen McArthur, who founded Ashers Baking Company with her husband Colin, said she initially accepted the order to avoid a confrontation but, as a born-again Christian knew in her heart that she could not fulfil the request.
After discussing the issue with her husband and son Daniel, she telephoned Gareth Lee and informed him the cake would not be made.
The judge told the court she believed if a heterosexual person had ordered a cake with graphics promoting “heterosexual marriage” or simply “marriage”, the order would have been fulfilled.
“I have no doubt that such a cake would have been provided. It is the word gay that the defendants took exception to,” said Judge Brownlie.
She found that Mr Lee had been treated “less favourably” contrary to the law.
The Equality Commission had initially asked for the bakery on Belfast’s Royal Avenue to acknowledge it had breached legislation and offer “modest” damages to the customer.
When Ashers refused, the publicly funded watchdog proceeded with the legal challenge on grounds that Ashers had discriminated against the customer on grounds of sexual orientation.
The judge later added: “They were contracted on a commercial basis to bake and ice a cake.
“The plaintiff was not seeking support or endorsement.”
Throughout the case, the McArthur family have been supported by the Christian Institute which paid their defence costs.
Speaking ahead of the judgment at Laganside court complex in Belfast, Daniel McArthur said faith had helped sustain his family through a “difficult” time.
Gay marriage remains a divisive issue in Northern Ireland and the devolved Assembly at Stormont has repeatedly rejected attempts to have it legalised.
The cake row has also prompted Democratic Unionists to propose a controversial conscience clause in equality legislation – a move Sinn Féin has vowed to veto.