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Churches concerned at gay cake finding

22 May 2015


Plaintiff: the gay-rights activist Gareth Lee outside Belfast County Court on Tuesday

Plaintiff: the gay-rights activist Gareth Lee outside Belfast County Court on Tuesday

CHURCHES have expressed concerns about safeguarding the rights of business owners to uphold their Christian beliefs under the European Convention of Human Rights, after the finding of a Belfast County Court judge against Ashers Baking Company on Tuesday in the "gay marriage cake" case (News, 3 April).

The action by Gareth Lee, a gay activist supported by the Northern Ireland Equality Commission, followed a decision last year by Ashers to decline an order placed at its Belfast shop by Mr Lee for a cake featuring the Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie, with the campaign slogan "Support gay marriage". The cake was also to feature the logo of the Belfast-based campaign group QueerSpace.

Ashers refused to make the cake, because it carried a message contrary to the firmly held Christian beliefs of the owners. The firm's proprietor, Daniel McArthur, said that he was unaware of the sexual orientation of the client [Mr Lee].The refusal of the firm to fill the order was based simply on the message requested, which, in accordance with the firm's Christian ethos, Mr McArthur could not in conscience comply with.

Ms Justice Isobel Brownlie rejected Ashers' defence that fulfilling the order would force them to support gay marriage against their deeply held Christian beliefs. She said that, under the law, Ashers were required to serve everyone. She found that Mr Lee had been discriminated against on the grounds of sexual orientation.

In her ruling, Judge Brownlie said: "The defendants have unlawfully discriminated against the plaintiff on grounds of sexual discrimination. This is direct discrimination for which there is no justification. 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."

Fining Ashers £500, with court costs estimated by the UK Christian Institute, which supported the defendant, at £39,000, the judge said that she had no doubt that, had Mr Lee ordered a cake with "support marriage" or "support heterosexual marriage", it would have been fulfilled.

Afterwards, Mr McArthur said: "We are extremely disappointed with the judgment. We said from the start that the issue was with the message on the cake, not with the customer, and we didn't know what the sexual orientation of Mr Lee was, and it wasn't relevant either. We have always been happy to serve any customers who come into our shops."

He said that the ruling suggested that all businesses will have to be willing to promote any cause or campaign, no matter how much they disagree with it, "or, as the Equality Commission has suggested, they should perhaps close down".

"We will not be closing down. We have not done anything wrong," he said. Ashers is now to consider an appeal.

Mr Lee did not comment after the case, but he is said to be "very pleased".

The head of the Equality Commission, Dr Michael Wardlow, defended the decision to take the case to court, saying that it was not about a cake or money. "It's about whether or not someone like Gareth can walk into a shop or a hotel or a restaurant, and wonder, 'Can I be served here, because they may have a different religious opinion to me?' This is not about the cake," he said.

After the hearing, the Democratic Unionist Party MLA Paul Givan, who is seeking to bring forward a so-called conscience clause that would allow businesses to refuse to provide services that they believed could compromise their religious beliefs, said that the Equality Commission should apologise.

Mr Givan said: "This is an assault on faith. Are Christians going to be dragged through the courts? I don't believe the people of Northern Ireland want that."

The chairman of the Church of Ireland Church and Society Commission, the Revd Adrian Dorrian, said that Anglicans recognise and commend efforts to combat discrimination. "It is of some concern," he said, "that the freedom of religious conscience that the law affords to all people may have been called into question by this ruling. The owners of the baking company were upholding their adherence to the traditional Christian view on marriage, as being between one man and one woman.

"In fact, this position was affirmed by a majority of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland in 2012, and is the legal position in Northern Ireland. It is of real concern that a conscientious choice made by the owners of a small business, which reflects such a position, has been branded discriminatory, and made the subject of this legal action."

Irish voters consulted on same-sex marriage.
The referendum on same-sex marriage to be held today in Ireland is the only one in the world in which a national electorate is being asked to legalise same-sex marriage. If passed, gay couples will have the right under the state's Constitution to marry; at present, only civil partnerships are recognised in law.

'A slice of discrimination' - Press column

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