There was no discrimination in a Christian bakery’s decision to decline an order for a cake bearing a pro-gay marriage slogan, a court has been told.
A lawyer for the family-owned Ashers Bakery said the refusal had been down to the content of the cake and was not connected to any characteristic of the customer.
David Scoffield QC said: “The defendants neither knew nor cared about Mr Lee’s sexual orientation or his religious beliefs, if any, or his political opinions.
“The reason why the order was declined was because of the content and had nothing to do with a feature of the person making the order, or those with which he was associated.”
Northern Ireland’s Equality Commission is taking the legal action against Ashers Bakery on behalf of the gay rights activist customer whose order was rejected.
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.
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 test case, which has split public opinion across Northern Ireland and beyond, is in its second day at Belfast County Court.
The Equality Commission, which monitors compliance with equality laws in the region, 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 legal action.
Describing the case as “complicated”, Mr Scoffield branded the legal action as a “knee-jerk” reaction.
If a heterosexual person had requested the same cake bearing the same message they too would have been refused, the barrister said.
Mr Scoffield added: “It was the content of the cake, not the characteristic of the customer or anyone associated with him.
“There was no discrimination in this case.”
The case, which has made headlines worldwide, is being heard by district judge Isobel Brownlie.
Earlier Karen McArthur, a director of the baking firm who took the cake order, acknowledged that she had always known she could not proceed with the request because of her opposition to same-sex marriage.
Mrs McArthur, who has run the bakery with her husband Colin for more than 20 years, said: “I knew in my heart that I could not put that message on the cake.”
Mrs McArthur, a member of Dunseverick Baptist Church, revealed that she had been a born-again Christian from the age of seven and had always tried to “please God” with the way she lived her life.
The order was taken to avoid a confrontation and to save the embarrassment, she claimed.
Mr Lee was later contacted by telephone and told apologetically that Ashers could not make the cake.
“I did not want to embarrass him or have a confrontation in the bakery,” Mrs McArthur told the court.
She later added: “The problem was with the message on the cake because, as a Christian, I do not support gay marriage.”
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, the court heard.
Barrister Robin Allen QC, representing Mr Lee, presented a promotional leaflet which he claimed showed the firm was willing to produce Halloween cakes.
“Witches are hardly consistent with promoting Christian beliefs,” Mr Allen said.
Co-owner Colin McArthur was also called to give evidence.
Although he had not provided a witness statement for the proceedings, he described how he had agonised over the moral dilemma but a family decision was made to refuse.
He said they talked about how they could “stand before God” by making a cake promoting gay marriage.
Mr McArthur said: “I spent a day or two thinking it over and wrestling with it in my own heart.
“As far as I can recollect, either on the Saturday or Sunday we were both of the same opinion that my wife and myself, we were both of the same mind that we could not proceed and make the cake.”
Meanwhile, Daniel McArthur, Ashers general manager, said the decision to decline the order had been made regardless of the legal consequences.
Even though he was unaware of the “ins and outs” of equality legislation, Mr McArthur said he could not compromise his deeply held Christian beliefs opposing gay marriage.
He said: “The reason for the decision was that, as Christians, we just did not feel that putting the message on a cake ... Gay marriage is clearly in contradiction of the Bible.
“We felt as Christians we could not put that message on a cake.”
Mr McArthur, a member of the Trinity Reformed Presbyterian Church, told the court: “We knew the decision in our conscience as Christians was one that we had to make.
“That’s why I said to mum regardless, as Christians we are bound by what we believe.
“This is what we are bound to do.”
The court was told Mr McArthur, the eldest of three boys, was appointed general manager at his parents’ company two years ago.
He said the family had not taken legal advice but he had telephoned a church elder to “ask his thoughts” on the matter.
“We were not doing it in defiance of the law,” added Mr McArthur. “I think it is quite obvious that we do not know a lot of the ins and outs of the law.
“Our Christian faith is of utmost importance to us. It is how we run our lives; it is how we live our lives; it is how we bring up our families...
“Before God, this is something we couldn’t make.”
Throughout the hearing Karen McArthur clutched her husband’s arm. The couple sat beside their son Daniel and his wife Amy in the main body of the court.
Much of the afternoon was dominated by technical legal argument.
But, as the case drew to a close for the day, Mr Scoffield reiterated claims that his clients could not set aside their religious beliefs when they donned their baking overalls.
He said: “This is a freedom of conscience case.
“The evidence from the defendants is that they seek to live at all times in accordance with the teachings of the Bible.
“The religious beliefs form the very core of who they are.”
On the other side of the large dock, normally used to hold criminals facing trial, Mr Lee sat listening intently, supported by male and female friends.
The public gallery of courtroom number 12 in the large Laganside complex was almost packed to capacity with Christian campaigners as well as gay rights activists.
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.
The Democratic Unionist Party, whose MLA Paul Givan is bringing forward the Private Members’ Bill, says businesses should have the right to refuse to provide services they believe could compromise their religious beliefs.
However, Sinn Féin has vowed to veto the move.
The case was adjourned until Monday.