A Christian bakery which refused to bake a marriage equality cake has been found guilty of discrimination in a landmark legal case in Northern Ireland.

Ashers Baking Company, which delivers across the UK and Northern Ireland, had argued that the cake and its slogan “Support Gay Marriage” went against their “sincerely held” Christian beliefs. The Antrim based Bakery was taken to court by gay rights activist Gareth Lee from the organisation “QueerSpace” in Belfast.

conscience clause cake ashers bakery found guilty of discrimination

The cake at the heart of the row

District Judge Isobel Brownlie said, as a business, Ashers was not exempt from discrimination law.

Click here to see the full written judgement on the court case.

Judge Brownlie said the McArthur family held “genuine deeply held religious beliefs” but said that they must have been aware that Mr Lee was gay and were aware of the ongoing equal marriage debate because of the graphics he had supplied.

She said: “As much as I acknowledge their religious beliefs this is a business to provide service to all. The law says they must do that.”

District Judge Brownlie accepted he (Mr Lee) had been treated “less favourably”, contrary to the law.

 She said: “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.

“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.”

Damages of £500 were agreed in advance by both legal teams. A lawyer for Mr Lee said the money would be donated to charity.

Judge Brownlie ruled the defendants have unlawfully discriminated on the grounds of sexual orientation as well as his political beliefs.

“This is direct discrimination for which there can be no justification.”

Judge Brownlie said she accepted that Ashers has “genuine and deeply held” religious views, but said the business was not above the law.

Dr. Michael Wardlow, Chief Commissioner of the Equality Commission, said:

“This  case raised issues of public importance regarding the extent to which suppliers of goods and services can refuse service on grounds of sexual orientation, religious belief and political opinion.”

“In reaching her decision, the judge affirmed the position under the law – that the rights of people to hold religious beliefs is protected, as is the right to manifest them –  but that they cannot do so in the commercial sphere in a way which is contrary to the rights of others.”

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However, DUP MLA Paul Givan, who has proposed that lawmakers in the Northern Ireland Assembly introduce a “conscience clause” as a result of the Ashers case, said many Christians would view the ruling as “an attack” on their religious convictions.

“What we cannot have is a hierarchy of rights, and today there’s a clear hierarchy being established that gay rights are more important than the rights of people to hold religious beliefs,” Mr Givan added.

Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister said it was “a dark day for justice and religious freedom in Northern Ireland”.

The Rainbow Project, Northern Ireland’s largest support organisation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender people welcomed the ruling clarifying that Ashers baking company had acted unlawfully by refusing to fulfill their contractual agreement to make a cake with a slogan supporting marriage equality.

Reacting to the judgment, John O’Doherty, Director of The Rainbow Project said:

‘We welcome this judgment. Judge Brownlie cut through the noise surrounding this case to address the facts. Ashers agreed to make the cake. They entered into a contractual agreement to make this cake and then changed their mind. While sympathetic as some may be to the position in which the company finds itself; this does not change the facts of the case. The judge clearly articulated that this is direct discrimination for which there can be no justification’

‘We do not believe that this matter should have been brought to court. We believe that Ashers bakery should have accepted the Equality Commission’s invitation to engage in mediation, where a remedy could have been found without the expense and division surrounding this court case.

‘However, most damaging of all has been the attempt by politicians to use this case to justify amending the law to allow businesses to discriminate against LGB&T people with the so-called ‘conscience clause.’ We would now urge Paul Given MLA and the DUP to make it clear to the people of Northern Ireland that they will not legislate to reduce the hard-won legal protections for our community.

‘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.’

Rev. Chris Hudson from All Souls Church in Belfast gave his response to the Asher’s Bakery Court Decision on Facebook earlier today;

“I welcome the decision regarding Asher’s Bakery not in any triumphalist way but that the court has clearly stated you cannot discriminate directly or indirectly. Business or commerce cannot operate on the principal of exclusion and the law is right to up hold that point. This was not a case of Christians against “Gay Activists”. Many Gays and Lesbians are members of Christian and other faith communities. There is now a serious need for “Difficult Conversations” regarding the Northern Ireland we wish to live in. Nobody’s religious belief should be depended on enacting laws to exclude others and that should be central to all discussions. As Minister in All Souls’ Church Belfast I am very proud of the LGBT members in our congregation, who consistently show loving kindness and patience towards others as they argue in the public space for our society to embrace our growing diverse communities. Nobody is threatened by God’s inclusive and unconditional love, which I believe was reflected in this wise court decision.”

Check out this discussion on today’s edition of Loose Women:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTAAjGn6rho&w=560&h=315]

History of the Case

The case began with a reasonable request from a loyal Ashers bakery customer requesting a cake to celebrate the election of the first openly LGBT mayor in Northern Ireland last year but escalated dramatically into a groundbreaking clash between backers of religious freedom and supporters of equality rights for the LGBT community in Northern Ireland.

Gareth Lee, a regular customer at Ashers Bakery, has told Belfast high court that he was left feeling like a “lesser person” after the business refused to make him a gay-themed cake featuring the Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie.

Mr Lee who requested the cake is backed by Northern Ireland’s Equality Commission, an independent public body which oversees equality and discrimination law. The McArthur family who own and manage Ashers bakery is backed by the Christian Institute and some of NI’s top politicians including the First Minister Peter Robinson.

Other than his evidence in court, Mr Lee has not yet spoken publicly about the case.

Ashers was founded in Newtownabbey, north of Belfast, in 1992 and is run by the McArthur family. The Christian directors oversee six shops in Northern Ireland and employ 62 people.

The company was named after a verse from the Bible, which refers to “Bread from Asher”.

In an online statement in July 2014, Mr McArthur said: “The directors and myself looked at it and considered it and thought that this order was at odds with our beliefs.

“It certainly was at odds with what the Bible teaches, and on the following Monday we rang the customer to let him know that we couldn’t take his order.”

Speaking outside the courts in March, before the hearing, Daniel McArthur, of Ashers, said his company was “just trying to be faithful to the Bible” by refusing to bake the gay-themed cake.

McArthur said he had been humbled by the support from fellow Christians.

The business stands accused of discrimination under the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (NI) 2006 and the Fair Employment and Treatment Order (NI) 1998.

The Equality Commission is funding Lee’s case by up to £40,000.

A barrister for Mr Lee said the Commission was the “guardian” of anti-discrimination laws. He said it was duty-bound to defend them.

“The Equality Commission has statutory duties to uphold the law,” the lawyer added.

He defended the fact that an out-of-court settlement was not reached.

The First Minister, Peter Robinson, claimed better use could be made of the money being spent on the case by the Equality Commission. Dismissing the incredible value the funding would provide in the fight against LGBT discrimination.

“The issue here is where there are competing rights, ensuring that there is reasonable accommodation. That is what the Equality Commission have missed in all of this.

“When you consider that they have set aside the potential of spending £33,000 on this court case where they are seeking damages of £500 against Ashers, there is a better use that could be put to that money, particularly in the tight fiscal situation the Executive faces.” He added.

An online statement from the Northern Ireland Equality Commission back in March reads:

“The Equality Commission has an important role in ensuring effective application of Northern Ireland’s equality laws and supports cases so that people are aware of, and can avail of, the protection these laws afford against all forms of unlawful discrimination.

“This case raises issues of public importance regarding the extent to which suppliers of goods and services can refuse service on grounds of sexual orientation, religious belief and political opinion.”

The head of the Equality Commission of Northern Ireland, Michael Wardlow defended the public bodies decision to pursue the bakery in an interview with the Guardian newspaper in March.

Mr Wardlow who is also a devout follower of Christ added – “If someone here in Northern Ireland is running an establishment as a person of faith and is compelled against their will but by law to serve an LGBT person then that can hardly be said to be persecution. I can understand how they might feel in their Christian conscience that that is a difficult thing. Well, I would then say either look at the law or maybe that is not the business they should be in.”

Mr Wardlow also stressed that the ECNI has championed the cause of Christians in the recent past who refused to work shifts for firms on Sundays because of Sabbath observance. “Christians are equally protected by legislation and if anyone believes they are discriminated against because of their beliefs I would argue they should come to us.”

The Christian Institute, which is supporting Ashers, said Wardlow is “seriously mistaken” about the facts of the case.

Lee had asked for the cake to mark the election last year of the first openly LGBT mayor in Northern Ireland – Andrew Muir, an Alliance councillor for North Down.

On day one of the hearing, Robin Allen QC, Lee’s barrister, told the court that Lee had been a regular customer at Ashers and rang the bakery to order the cake after seeing an advertising leaflet in the city centre shop.

The lawyer said there had been no issue when Lee called the bakery’s director. A few days later, Lee was told there was a problem with the cake, Allen said, adding that there was no information on the leaflet as to what was acceptable or unacceptable in terms of a theme for a cake baked by Ashers.

Karen McArthur admitted that she had initially agreed to an order for the cake because she did not want to embarrass the customer who asked for it or start a confrontation in the shop. She said she then consulted an elder in her branch of the Presbyterian church about the order.

She added: “In my heart I knew that I would not be able to fulfil the order.”

Mrs McArthur then phoned Mr Lee to inform him the company would not be processing his order on religious grounds.

“She was extremely apologetic but the message was an extremely difficult one for me to accept,” said Mr Lee at the court hearing in March.

Initially, the Northern Ireland Equality Commission asked the bakery to acknowledge that it had breached legislation and offer ”modest” damages to the customer.

When Ashers refused, the Equality Commission proceeded with the legal action.

Opening the case before district judge Isobel Brownlie, Robin Allen QC, insisted that baking a cake did not mean the bakers supported any message the cake might carry.

The barrister highlighted that the proposed design would not have had an Ashers logo on it.

He then compared the baking of a cake to a postman delivering a letter or a printer printing a poster.

”A postman taking a letter to the door or a printer carrying out a printing job – nobody would say that involved promoting or support,” he said.

”It’s simply a functional relationship, a working relationship.”

At the court hearing Mr Lee said there was nothing on the leaflet which suggested a limitation on the service due to ”religious scruples”.

Mr Allen added: “Ashers did not advertise themselves as a business having religious scruples but did advertise in such a way that they did not have religious scruples.”

The lawyer argued there had been a clear breach of contract and rejected claims the bakery was being asked to endorse gay marriage.

They could have “positively dissociated” themselves from the Support Gay Marriage message to be printed on the cake, he said.

Mr Allen said some had portrayed Ashers as David’ to the Equality Commission’s Goliath’.

But he stressed that the case involved a dispute between Mr Lee and a bakery which was a £1 million international enterprise.

“This is a case about a single man who had a contract for a cake which was accepted by a substantial, international million pound business of many employees,”

”In circumstances such as these, you might say Mr Lee was David and Ashers Goliath,” he told the court.

The McArthurs, were represented in court by David Scoffield, QC and barrister Sarah Crowther.

Adjourning the case at the end of March, district judge Isobel Brownlie told Belfast County Court she would reserve her judgment so that “full consideration” could be given to the evidence, which was presented over three days.

Judge Brownlie said: “It is not a straightforward area of the law.

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

The Ashers case has prompted the Democratic Unionist Party to propose a law change at Stormont that would provide an ”equality clause” which would essentially enable businesses to refuse to provide certain services on religious grounds.

Paul Givan has committed to bringing about an equality legislation ‘conscience clause’ several times.

In February 2014 The Catholic Church said it supported the general objective of DUP MLA Paul Givan’s Private Member’s Bill to build a conscience clause into equality law.

The clause would allow businesses to refuse to provide some services if they clash with their religious convictions. The clause would open the doors to a world of discrimination.

In December one of the biggest names on Twitter branded the bill “sick”.

In a message to his 8.2 million internet followers, comedian and presenter Stephen Fry urged everyone to sign an online petition opposing the passing of a bill through the Northern Ireland Assembly – legislation that would allow exemptions for people on religious grounds.

Sinn Fein announced in February that the party would use a petition of concern to stop the Private Member’s Bill in its tracks when it comes before the Assembly. The Green Party, NI21 and the SDLP have also pledged to sign the veto. The Alliance Party supports the principle of reasonable accommodation.

Amnesty International wants the bill to be withdrawn.

“Amnesty does not accept that there is a need for a change in the law along the lines proposed in the paper,” they said… The existing regulations are compatible with the European Convention of Human Rights, which balances the right to manifest religious beliefs and the rights of individuals not to be discriminated against on grounds of sexual orientation… Amnesty does not consider there to be any necessity for these regulations to be so amended.”

The case has become a ground-breaking clash between backers of religious freedom and supporters of equality rights for the LGBT community in Northern Ireland. Ashers is now a religious freedom cause for evangelical Christians across the world and Mr Lee has seen global appreciation for continuing his fight against discrimination.

Regardless of the verdict, the controversy seems certain to be destined for appeals to higher courts.