A legal battle over a “gay cake” has been adjourned for three months following the intervention of Northern Ireland’s Attorney General John Larkin QC over a potential human rights violation.
In 2014 the McArthur family, who run Ashers Baking Company in Belfast, refused to bake a pro-gay rights cake for activist Gareth Lee. Lee requested a £36.50 cake featuring Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie and the slogan “Support Gay Marriage” for a private function celebrating International Day Against Homophobia.
Lee paid in full when placing the order at Ashers, but two days later, the company informed him over the telephone that it could not be fulfilled.
In March last year the high-profile case was heard over three days, and two months later District Judge Isobel Brownlie found that Ashers directly discriminated against Lee on the grounds of his sexual orientation as well as his political beliefs. While accepting that the McArthurs had “genuine and deeply held” religious views, Judge Brownlie said those beliefs could not dictate the law and ordered the bakers to pay Lee agreed damages of £500.
Stating that they were appealing against the court ruling to protect all family businesses with deeply held convictions, the McArthurs took their case to the Belfast High Court, where it was scheduled to be heard this week in front of three of Northern Ireland’s most senior judges.
It has now been adjourned until May following the dramatic intervention by the Attorney General, whose office wrote to the court setting out issues around a potential conflict between Northern Ireland’s equality legislation and European human rights laws.
Outside the court, Ashers manager Daniel McArthur said the company “does not discriminate against anyone” and had taken “issue with the message on the cake and not the customer”.
“As a family we do believe we should retain the freedom to decline business that would force us to promote a cause with which we profoundly disagree,” said McArthur. “As Christians we cannot simply switch off our faith when we enter the workplace on a Monday morning. To be a Christian at all is to strive to live for Christ in every corner of our lives.”
While the majority of gay rights activists and campaigners have supported Lee throughout the lengthy legal process, one of them doesn’t, and he wrote an article in The Guardian explaining his position.
Peter Tatchell, who initially backed Lee but has now changed his mind, said: “I profoundly disagree with Ashers’ opposition to same-sex love and marriage, and support protests against them. They claim to be Christians, yet Jesus never once condemned homosexuality, and discrimination is not a Christian value.”
However, he went on to say: “On reflection the court was wrong to penalise Ashers and I was wrong to endorse its decision… [Lee’s] cake request was refused not because he was gay, but because of the message he asked for. There is no evidence that his sexuality was the reason Ashers declined his order.”
“In my view, it is an infringement of freedom to require businesses to aid the promotion of ideas to which they conscientiously object. Discrimination against people should be unlawful, but not against ideas,” Tatchell concluded.
Some believe that this case is a simple one, whatever side you take. Either the bakers were happy to make a cake for Lee (regardless of his sexuality) but took issue with making a cake supporting a cause they disagreed with (gay marriage). Or they indirectly discriminated against gay customers because they are the ones most likely to be affected by the bakery’s policy.