The Christian Belfast bakers, who refused to create a wedding cake including a pro-gay marriage slogan, have lost their appeal against the court ruling that they were “unlawfully discriminated.” The outcome of their court case is said to have implications for the freedom of expression across the United Kingdom.
Daniel McArthur the manager of Ashers Bakery had declined an order placed by Garth Lee, in May 2014, claiming the message he had requested on the cake was inconsistent with their religious beliefs.
In 2015 the McArthurs were found to have breached the equality legislation, following a court case in Belfast. During the appeal, heard this May, it was claimed that the outcome would have implications for freedom of expression across the United Kingdom.
Lee, who ordered the cake, a member of the LGBT advocacy group Queer Space, had wanted a cake featuring the Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie with the phrase “Support Gay Marriage” for a private function to mark International Day Against Homophobia. He paid ($44.68) £36.50, the cost in full, for the cake at Ashers' Belfast city center branch. Two days later he was telephoned and told they could not fulfil his order.
Manager, McArthur, has maintained that Lee’s sexuality has never been an issue, rather the message he had wanted the bakery to create, “Support Gay Marriage.”
Before entering court on Monday McArthur said “This has never been about the customer. It has been about a message promoting a cause that contradicts the Bible.”
The three appeal judges were Northern Ireland’s lord chief justice, Sir Declan Morgan, and lord justices Weatherup and Weir. In delivering the appeal judgement Northern Ireland's Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan said Ashers had directly discriminated. The judge rejected the argument that the bakery would be endorsing the slogan by baking the cake.
He said “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.”
During the 30-minute ruling Sir Morgan concluded that the original ruling had been correct and found that “as a matter of law” the bakery has “discriminated against the respondent directly on the grounds of sexual orientation contrary to the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2006.”
The Judge also criticized the Northern Ireland Equality Commission. Saying the publicly funded body should have offered the McArthur family advice during the case, as the bakers believed their rights as people of faith within the commercial sphere were being undermined.
As he left the court Lee embraced and shook hands with the reporters the Daily Mail reports. McArthur family members sat on the front bench of the public gallery as the court emptied.
A supporter of the McArthur family, Jim Well, told the Guardian newspaper the ruling was “an awful decision” and said an appeal would be mounted against the ruling at the supreme court in London.
Lee said “The only thing that I would like to say is I'm relieved and very grateful to the Court of Appeal for the judgment.”
Gareth Lee breaks silence to say he is relieved at outcome of gay cake appeal pic.twitter.com/65SH0z074f— Jane Loughrey (@Jane_utv) October 24, 2016
The Northern Ireland director of the Evangelical Alliance Peter Lynas told Premier Christian Radio “We're saddened. This is a sad day for freedom of conscience and religions.
“Ashers have lost this case, but more importantly I think we've all lost some of our freedoms in this moment because they've been forced to promote a view they fundamentally disagree with, and that is the antithesis of a free and fair society, so it is deeply worrying this outcome.”
Director of the Rainbow Project John O’Doherty said: “Ashers Baking Company entered into a contractual agreement to make this cake and then changed their mind. Sympathetic as some may be to the position in which the company finds itself, this does not change the facts of the case. The judgment clearly articulated that this is direct discrimination for which there can be no justification.”
He added “We once again extend the hand of friendship to all people of faith, churches and families. We would encourage faith leaders to engage with our community to ensure better relations and to develop trust and respect between our overlapping communities for the betterment of our society.”
During the original court case last year District Judge Isobel Brownlie ruled that religious beliefs could not dictate the law and ordered the firm to pay damages of $611 (£500).
The bakery, Ashers, has six branches and employs 80 staff across the United Kingdom and Ireland. They have been supported by The Christian Institute, which organized public rallies and garnered financial backing for the court case. In turn Lee's case was taken in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Equality Commission.