ASHERS, the Belfast-based Christian bakers who were found guilty of discrimination last year for refusing to ice a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan (News, 22 May 2015), are waiting to hear whether their appeal has been successful.
The appeal judges reserved judgment, after hearing from the family’s lawyer that they felt that they would be committing a sin by going against their consciences. The family are being supported financially in their appeal by an Evangelical charity, Christian Institute.
The McArthur family, who run the Ashers Baking Company, are seeking to overturn a judgment which found that they acted unlawfully by declining the order placed by LGBT activist Gareth Lee in 2014 (News, 14 November 2014).
The appellants say that the decision will have implications for freedom of expression across the UK.
Their barrister told the three-judge court of appeal that they believed that by providing this particular cake with the slogan “Support Gay Marriage” they would be committing a sin.
“They could not in conscience provide a product with a message that was inconsistent with their deeply held religious beliefs, in circumstances where the evidence was clear that they believed that to do so would be sinful,” David Scoffield QC said. They were not contractually obliged to provide the cake, he said. “This wasn’t a refusal to sell a cake to the plaintiff: it was about the refusal to sell this particular cake. . .
“The issue is the extent to which those who hold such religious convictions can be required by the law to act in a manner inconsistent with their convictions.
“It makes it extremely difficult for any business, such as a printer, or someone who, as we have seen in this case, creates T-shirts or creates cakes, to run any kind of bespoke service if faced with the position that someone could come through your door and order something which is clearly objectionable.”
In the original case, Belfast County Court heard that Mr Lee, a member of the LGBT group Queer Space, had wanted a cake featuring Bert and Ernie, two puppets from Sesame Street, with the phrase “Support Gay Marriage”, for a private function marking International Day Against Homophobia.
He paid the £36.50 (€46) in full at Ashers’ Belfast city-centre branch, but received a phone call two days later telling him that the company could not fulfil his order.
The owner of Ashers, Karen McArthur, said in her evidence that, as a born-again Christian, she knew she could not make the cake, but had taken the order to avoid a confrontation in the shop. Her husband, Daniel, said that they could not compromise their religious beliefs, despite the legal ramifications.
Mr Lee told the District Judge Isobel Brownlie at the time that he was left feeling like a lesser person. The judge said that religious beliefs could not dictate law, found that the bakers had breached equality legislation and directly discriminated against Mr Lee, and ordered Ashers to pay damages of £500.
An intervention by the Attorney General for Northern Ireland, John Larkin QC, early this year delayed a previous appeal. His office had written to the court warning of a potential clash between Northern Ireland’s equality legislation and European human-rights laws.
On the first day of the appeal, Daniel McArthur said: “Two years ago today, we were asked to help promote a campaign to redefine marriage in Northern Ireland. We never imagined that, two years later, we would find ourselves still living with the consequences of that request.
“This was never just a case about one little bakery in Belfast. It’s always had implications for freedom of expression throughout the UK.”
Towards the end of the appeal, the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan, asked the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland to explain how to balance the rights of Christians and gay people. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where same-sex marriage remains illegal.
Mr Larkin said that there were the very questions about the part played by conscience in all kinds of business. “I say very clearly, if it was a case where Mr Lee had been refused some of Ashers’ excellent chocolate eclairs because he way gay, or perceived to be gay, I would be standing on the other side of the court.
“But it’s not about that: it’s about expression, and whether it’s lawful, under Northern Ireland constitutional law, for Ashers to be forced to articulate or express or say a political message which is at variance with their political views, and in particular their religious views.”
The Lord Chief Justice said that the judgment would be given as soon as possible.