The Christian owners of Ashers Baking Company have lost their appeal to overturn a conviction which found them guilty of discrimination for refusing to make a cake bearing a slogan which promoted gay marriage.
The Court of Appeal in Belfast upheld the previous judgement, filed last year, which found that the company had discriminated against local gay rights activist Gareth Lee by failing to provide a cake bearing a picture of Bert and Ernie with the slogan “support gay marriage”. The initial judgement ordered them to pay £500 in compensation to Mr. Lee.
The owners, Daniel and Amy MacArthur, said that they were happy to serve Mr. Lee, but felt unable to make a cake endorsing a message they did not agree with. They, therefore, argued that they had not discriminated against Mr. Lee, but had merely declined to support his cause.
Speaking on their behalf during the case, John Larkin QC, Attorney General for Northern Ireland, said if the County Court ruling against Ashers was right, the laws used against the bakery fall foul of Northern Ireland’s constitutional law.
Pointed out that Gareth Lee was able to ask another bakery to fulfil the order, and that the court did not have to force Ashers to do it, he said: “Although the case for the Plaintiff is put pleasantly and with every appearance of sweet reasonableness, what cannot be disguised is that the defendants are being compelled, on pain of civil liability, to burn a pinch of incense at the altar of a god they do not worship.
He added: “The constitutional law of Northern Ireland, supplemented by the ECHR, resists such a compulsion.”
The three judges hearing the appeal – Ireland’s lord chief justice, Sir Declan Morgan, and Lord Justices Weatherup and Weir – disagreed, however, ruling that creating a cake did not constitute support for a cause.
“The fact that a baker provides a cake for a particular team or portrays witches on a Halloween cake does not indicate any support for either,” the lord chief justice said.
Mr. Lee was supported in his case by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. Speaking after the ruling Chief Commissioner, Dr. Michael Wardlow told the press: “The message that goes out today is that people should be free to be able to go in and access services without having to run some sort of lottery to know whether or not my belief conflicts with theirs.
“There is a debate to be had with the faith communities to find out how we negotiate this minefield and we’re up for that, and we’ve already begun that process some years ago.”
Daniel McArthur also addressed the press following the hearing, speaking of his family’s deep disappointment at losing their high-profile court action.
“We’re extremely disappointed with today’s ruling,” he said. “If equality law means people can be punished for politely refusing to support other people’s causes, then equality law needs to change.”
“This ruling undermines democratic freedom. It undermines religious freedom. It undermines free speech.”
“We had served Mr. Lee before and would be happy to serve him again. The judges accepted that we did not know Mr. Lee was gay and that he was not the reason we declined the order. We have always said it was never about the customer, it was about the message. The court accepted that. But now we are being told we have to promote the message even though it’s against our conscience.”
Mr. MacArthur said he would be taking advice from lawyers on how to proceed, but warned other Christian business owners to “to take advice about whether they can refuse orders that conflict with their consciences, or whether they have to be coerced as well into promoting other people’s views”.
Speaking passionately, he added: “It’s been a trying time. But we’re thankful to God for His faithfulness to us through everything. He is still on the throne, He is the ruler of heaven and of earth, and He is our God, and we worship and we honour Him.”