The Christian owners of a bakery discriminated against a gay man when they refused to make a cake carrying a slogan promoting same-sex marriage.
A judge at Belfast County Court found Ashers Baking Company acted unlawfully by declining the request from gay rights activist Gareth Lee last year.
Ordering the company to pay damages of £500 (€695), District Judge Isobel Brownlie said religious beliefs could not dictate the law.
“The defendants are entitled to continue to hold their genuine and deeply held religious beliefs and to manifest them but, in accordance with the law, not to manifest them in the commercial sphere if it is contrary to the rights of others,” she said.
The Northern Ireland Equality Commission brought the landmark legal action on behalf of Mr Lee.
Ashers, owned by the McArthur family, was supported by the Christian Institute, which paid their legal costs.
Delivering her 90-minute judgment, Judge 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, wanted a cake featuring Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie with the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’ for a private function in Bangor, Co Down, to mark International Anti-Homophobia Day. He paid in full when placing the order at Ashers’ Belfast branch but said he was stunned when, two days later, the bakery phoned to say this order could not be processed.
In evidence in March, Mr Lee claimed to have been left feeling like a lesser person by the bakery’s actions.
Judge Brownlie accepted that Mr Lee had been treated “less favourably”, contrary to the law. She also said that the bakers must have been aware Mr Lee was gay or associated with others who were gay and supported same-sex marriage because of the graphics he had supplied.
It was the word “gay” to which they objected.
“My finding is that the defendants cancelled this order as they oppose same-sex marriage for the reason that they regard it as sinful and contrary to their genuinely-held religious beliefs,” said Judge Brownlie.
“Same-sex marriage is inextricably linked to sexual relations between same-sex couples, which is a union of persons having a particular sexual orientation. The plaintiff did not share the particular religious and political opinion which confines marriage to heterosexual orientation.
“The defendants are not a religious organisation. They are conducting a business for profit and, notwithstanding their genuine religious beliefs, there are no exceptions available under the 2006 regulations which apply to this case.”
Throughout the hearing, Ashers general manager Daniel McArthur sat beside his wife Amy .
In evidence, the McArthurs, who employ up to 80 people, said that they were opposed to gay marriage on religious grounds.
After the ruling, Michael Wardlow of the Equality Commission, said: “It was very robust, very clear... It says to people who took part in commercial enterprises that they must act within the anti-discrimination framework.”
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