Judgement reserved in gay cake case

Judgement reserved in gay cake case

Judgement has been reserved in the case against a Christian bakery accused of discrimination because it declined to make a cake carrying a pro gay marriage slogan.

District Judge Isobel Brownlie told Belfast County Court she wanted to give full consideration to the evidence which was presented over three days.

The judge said: “It is not a straightforward area of the law.

“Obviously this is a case in which I propose to reserve my judgement.”

The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland took the case against Ashers Bakery on behalf of the gay rights activist whose cake order was refused.

Judgement reserved in gay cake caseGareth Lee.

Gareth Lee, a volunteer member of the LGBT advocacy group Queer Space, claimed he was left feeling like a lesser person when his order, which had been paid in full, was turned down two days later.

Ashers, which is run by the McArthur family, declined the request for a cake with an image of Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie below the motto Support Gay Marriage. It had been ordered for a private function marking International Day Against Homophobia last May.

The North's Equality Commission, which has a statutory obligation to monitor compliance with equality laws, 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 commission, a publicly funded watchdog, proceeded with the court action.

Earlier Robin Allen QC, representing Mr Lee, claimed that the word gay had been the cause of the problem.

The barrister said: “It is clear that if the word gay had been replaced by the word heterosexual, the order would have been accepted.

“It is clear that if the word gay had been missing it would have been accepted.”

The high-profile case has divided public opinion across the North and beyond and the public gallery was packed with Christian and gay rights campaigners.

It had been scheduled to finish last Friday.

In his closing submissions, Mr Allen said the decision to refuse the order was based on a political opinion opposing efforts to change Northern Ireland's law banning gay marriage because it was contrary to their religious beliefs.

There was a clear breach of contract and that Ashers, which did not advertise itself as an overtly religious business, had not been asked to endorse gay marriage, the lawyer claimed.

Mr Allen said: “Mrs McArthur did not feel so strongly about this that she refused to take his money and his graphic.”

Last week Karen McArthur, a director of the bakery, told the court she had accepted the order to avoid embarrassment or confrontation in the bakery but knew in her heart she would not be able to fulfil the request.

Judgement reserved in gay cake caseKaren and Colin McArthur.

It was more than 48 hours later, after consulting with her husband Colin, also a company director, that she telephoned Mr Lee and informed him his cake would not be made.

Mr Allen argued that Ashers could have positively dissociated itself from the pro-gay marriage slogan without turning away the customer.

He said: “They were capable of fulfilling this contract without themselves participating in it, except at the most lowly level.”

Same-sex marriage remains a contentious issue in Northern Ireland and attempts to have it legalised have been repeatedly rejected by the devolved Assembly at Stormont.

The cake row has prompted a proposal to include a so-called “conscience clause” in equality legislation.

Mr Allen said: “If this case causes further debate and the politicians may decide to draw the lines in some other places but that’s not my business. It is not Mr Scoffield’s business and with due respect, it is not your business today. That is for the politicians.

“And, if there is litigation on any amended law we’ll have to grapple with that as and when.”

Nine members of the McArthur family work at the bakery business, which has six branches, employs around 80 staff and delivers across Ireland and the UK.

Earlier, David Scoffield QC, representing Ashers, said it was a clear “promotion” case.

He said: “This is not merely an issue of fact. The defendants subsequently would feel they were supporting the cause.

“They would be doing something that would be against their conscience.”

Mr Scoffield said if the plaintiff was right, a Muslim printer could not decline to print leaflets about the prophet Mohammed; an atheist could not turn down an order claiming God made the world; a gay baker could not say no to a product saying gay sex was an abomination; and a Roman Catholic printer could not decline to make leaflets calling for the legalisation of abortion on demand.

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