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
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
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
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
"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
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.
slice of discrimination' - Press column