The Court of Appeal in Belfast has ruled against the owners of Ashers Baking Company, in an “oppressive” use of Northern Ireland’s equality laws.
The McArthur family had been taken to court accused of political and sexual orientation discrimination, after they refused to make a cake with the campaign slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’.
After a protracted and costly legal action, the case brought by the taxpayer-funded Equality Commission for Northern Ireland has gone against the Christian family.
Handing down the judgment in Belfast today, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan and two other senior judges upheld County Court Judge Isobel Brownlie’s previous ruling that the McArthur family discriminated against Gareth Lee.
The judges recognised that the family did not refuse the service because Mr Lee was gay, but nonetheless ruled that refusing the order because of its slogan “was direct discrimination”.
The judgment states that Ashers can provide a “service to all or none but not to a selection of customers”, adding: “What they may not do is provide a service that only reflects their own political or religious message in relation to sexual orientation”.
Following the ruling, The Christian Institute has called for the law to be changed to protect freedom of conscience. Deputy Director for Public Affairs at the Institute Simon Calvert said:
“Equality laws are there to protect people from discrimination, not to force people to associate themselves with a cause they oppose.
“But those same laws have become a weapon in the hands of those who want to oppress anyone who dissents from the politically-correct norms of the moment. The law needs to change before more damage is done.”
After the judgment was delivered Ashers’ General Manager Daniel McArthur spoke outside court of his family’s deep disappointment at losing their high-profile court action.
“We’re extremely disappointed with today’s ruling. If equality law means people can be punished for politely refusing to support other people’s causes, then equality law needs to change.
“This ruling undermines democratic freedom. It undermines religious freedom. It undermines free speech.”
Mr McArthur added: “We had served Mr Lee before and would be happy to serve him again. The judges accepted that we did not know Mr Lee was gay and that was not the reason we declined the order. We have always said it was never about the customer, it was about the message. The court accepted that. But now we are being told we have to promote the message even though it’s against our conscience.
“What we refused to do, was to be involved with promoting a political campaign to change marriage law.
“Because we’re Christians we support the current law. And we felt that making this cake would have made us responsible for its message.
“We wouldn’t decorate a cake with a pornographic picture or with swear words. We wouldn’t decorate a cake with a spiteful message about gay people. Because to do so would be to endorse and promote what was said.
“The court said the Commission gave the impression it was not interested in assisting the faith community in issues like this. I think a lot of people will agree with that. That’s certainly how we have felt.
“We’ll have to take advice from our lawyers about whether there is a way to appeal this ruling. In the meantime, other businesses will have to take advice about whether they can refuse orders that conflict with their consciences. Or whether they too may be coerced into promoting other people’s views.
“We’d like to thank the huge numbers of people who have been supporting us and praying for us through all this. We’re very grateful to you all.
“It’s been a trying time. But we’re thankful to God for His faithfulness to us through everything. He is still on the throne, He is the ruler of heaven and of earth and He is our God, and we worship and we honour Him.”
Mr Calvert added: “Ashers did not refuse Gareth Lee’s request because he was gay. They didn’t refuse his request because they didn’t like the look of him or because he’s not ‘their sort of person’.
“The only reason Ashers Baking Company turned this order down is because to do otherwise would be to involve themselves and their company in endorsing a highly political and controversial campaign to redefine marriage. This is something that as Bible-believing Christians, they simply could not do.
“To essentially say ‘I’m sorry but whatever you think about the morality of any particular campaign you must get involved with it if asked’ is baffling and frankly oppressive.”
“What about the Muslim printer asked to produce cartoons of Mohammed? Or the Roman Catholic company asked to produce adverts with the slogan ‘Support abortion’?
“Any company whose owners believe that their creative output says something about them and their values has been put at risk by this interpretation of the law. We’ll work with the family and their lawyers to see what options for appeal remain open.
“On behalf of The Christian Institute and the McArthur family I’d like to say ‘thank you’ to the thousands upon thousands of people who have shown their support for Ashers.
“And I would like to pay tribute to the McArthur family. Anyone who has followed the case will have seen that they have always acted and spoken with gentleness and respect.
“They have a peace that comes from trusting in God whatever the outcome and it has been a privilege for all of us at The Christian Institute to know them and to stand with them.”
In May this year, the McArthur family attended a four-day hearing at the Court of Appeal, overseen by judges including the Lord Chief Justice.
The family’s barrister, David Scoffield QC, argued that their decision not to bake the cake was due to the message on it, not the customer.
He said that in her ruling last year, County Court Judge Isobel Brownlie seemed to think the McArthur family must have known customer Gareth Lee was gay because he supported same-sex marriage but that she was mistaken.
The court also heard from Attorney General for Northern Ireland John Larkin QC, who said if the County Court ruling against Ashers was right, the laws used against the bakery fall foul of Northern Ireland’s constitutional law.
Mr Larkin said: “I say very clearly, if it was a case where Mr Lee had been refused some of Ashers’ excellent chocolate eclairs because he was 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.”
He pointed out that Gareth Lee was able to ask another bakery to help him express his opinion and that the court does not have to force Ashers to do it.
“Although the case for the Plaintiff is put pleasantly and with every appearance of sweet reasonableness”, he added, “what cannot be disguised is that the Defendants are being compelled, on pain of civil liability, to burn a pinch of incense at the altar of a god they do not worship.
“The constitutional law of Northern Ireland, supplemented by the ECHR, resists such a compulsion.”