On the second day of legal proceedings the Attorney General for Northern Ireland, John Larkin QC, gave reasons for his dramatic intervention in the Ashers case.
This week’s appeal was originally scheduled for February, but was delayed when Mr Larkin questioned the constitutional validity of the regulations on which the case against Ashers is based.
Today, Mr Larkin said if the County Court ruling against Ashers is right, the laws used against the bakery fall foul of Northern Ireland’s constitutional law.
Last year, County Court judge Isobel Brownlie ruled that the owners of Ashers, the McArthur family, had broken discrimination law when they declined to bake a cake with a slogan supporting same-sex marriage.
Mr Larkin told judges at the Court of Appeal in Belfast that the Ashers case is about “expression”.
He 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.”
The Attorney General pointed out that Gareth Lee, the customer who requested the cake, was able to ask another bakery to help him express his opinion. The court, said Mr Larkin, does not have to force Ashers to do it.
Mr Larkin stated to the court: “Although the case for the Plaintiff is put pleasantly and with every appearance of sweet reasonableness, 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.”
In the afternoon, Robin Allen QC presented arguments for the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, which has taken Ashers Baking Company to court on behalf of Gareth Lee.
He claimed that the case is not about ‘compelled speech’ but also admitted that Ashers offered their services subject to terms and conditions. They did not make an unlimited offer to do whatever the customer asked.
Allen argued that the “Support Gay Marriage” slogan which Ashers declined to produce is associated with sexual orientation.
But the Lord Chief Justice cited the Republic of Ireland referendum as a reminder that not everyone who supports same-sex marriage is homosexual.
Yesterday, the barrister representing Ashers Baking Company argued that the McArthur family’s actions did not amount to discrimination.
David Scoffield QC told judges at the Court of Appeal in Belfast that discrimination must be against “another person”, not an idea or an object: “To say you can discriminate against the orientation of a cake is nonsenical.”
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