‘Gay cake’ case: Eminent law professor joins legal team fighting appeal on behalf of Ashers Baking Company as detailed court papers lodged
One of Northern Ireland’s foremost legal minds has joined the team spearheading the appeal by Ashers Baking Company in the controversial ‘gay cake’ case.
Professor Christopher McCrudden of Queen’s University Belfast has been enlisted to the team which is headed up by David Scoffield QC.
McCrudden is Professor of Human Rights and Equality Law at Queen’s and William W Cook Global Law Professor at the University of Michigan Law School. Until 2011, he was Professor of Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford. He studied law at Queen’s University Belfast, Yale University, and Oxford University.
The news emerged as lawyers for the bakery lodged court papers giving detailed explanations of the grounds for appeal following a court decision last year which ruled that the firm had discriminated against a customer by refusing to make a £36.50 cake with a slogan supporting same-sex marriage.
Prof McCrudden’s appointment has been made in advance of the legal appeal which will be heard over two days starting on Wednesday 3 February.
In May last year a judge at Belfast County Court ruled that the bakery had acted unlawfully.
The court ordered Ashers to pay £500 damages after Judge Isobel Brownlie said the customer had been treated “less favourably” contrary to the law and the bakery had breached political and sexual orientation discrimination regulations.
But the McArthur family who own and run Ashers decided to challenge the ruling following consultations with their legal advisors.
In a statement at the time, the family said:
“After much careful and prayerful consideration given to legal advice, we have decided to appeal the judgment”.
“We continue to insist that we have done nothing wrong as we have discriminated against no individual but rather acted according to what the Bible teaches regarding marriage.
“As many other people have already noted, Christian beliefs seem to have been trampled over in this judgment and we believe this only has negative effects for our society.
“Our hope and prayer would be that an appeal will allow us and other Christians to live out their faith in Jesus Christ in every part of their lives, including their workplace.”
The family has been given the full support of The Christian Institute, which has funded their defence costs. Welcoming the appointment of Prof McCrudden, CI spokesman Simon Calvert said:
“We are delighted to have such a formidable legal expert join an already strong team. Professor McCrudden’s experience and knowledge of human rights and equality law will be of incalculable assistance.
“We look forward to the hearing and remain confident that the McArthur family have a good case which deserves to win.”
Prof McCrudden’s main research focus is on human rights law. Currently, his research deals with the foundational principles underpinning human rights practice. He was awarded the American Society of International Law’s prize for outstanding legal scholarship in 2008. Prof McCrudden is a Fellow of the British Academy.
The legal case followed a decision in May 2014 by Ashers to decline an order placed at its Belfast store by a gay rights activist who asked for a cake featuring the Sesame Street puppets, Bert and Ernie, and the campaign slogan, ‘Support Gay Marriage’.
The customer also wanted the cake to feature the logo of a Belfast-based campaign group QueerSpace.
Ashers, owned by Colin and Karen McArthur, refused to make the cake because it carried a message contrary to the family’s firmly-held Christian beliefs. They were supported by their son Daniel, the General Manager of the company.
But the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI) launched a civil action against the family-run bakery, claiming its actions violated equality laws in Northern Ireland and alleging discrimination under two anti-discrimination statutes – The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (NI) 2006 and The Fair Employment and Treatment (NI) Order 1998.
The case has raised key issues of public importance regarding the protection of rights to freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
Donations from grassroots supporters have helped fund the bakery’s legal fees.
Mr Calvert said:
“We’re confident that Ashers’ grounds of appeal are strong. There are a number of areas where the county court simply misapplied discrimination law. Ashers’ lawyers will also show how the court’s approach breached the right of a person not to be compelled to express views to which they have a strong objection.
“We believe that compelled speech is dangerous because it runs the risk of forcing people to act against their consciences. The judge in the county court said this is not a case of compelled speech. But the skeleton argument from Ashers’ lawyers says:
‘To regard the baking and icing of the cake by the Defendants and their staff as simply the actions of automatons with no personal engagement with their work or with the results of their labour, as simply the unthinking agents of their customers, risks being deeply disrespectful of the work of the Defendants.’
Mr Calvert added: “The family has taken great encouragement from the truly astonishing support they have received from ordinary men and women from Northern Ireland and across the world.
“The case has struck a chord with so many people of all faiths and none including supporters of same-sex marriage who have been equally outraged by this action against Ashers. It’s vitally important that the higher courts consider this issue.”
The Christian Institute has repeatedly pointed out that the implications of the original court decision being upheld will be widespread and significant.
Mr Calvert said:
“The leading human rights QC Aidan O’Neill has spelled out what might happen as a result of the judge ruling against Ashers.
“For instance there would be no defence to similar actions being taken against other businesses in any of the following scenarios:
- A Muslim printer refusing a contract requiring the printing of cartoons of Mohammed;
- An atheist web designer refusing to design a website presenting as scientific fact the claim that God made the world in six days;
- A Christian film company refusing to produce a pornographic film;
- A Christian baker refusing to take an order to make a cake celebrating Satanism;
- A T-shirt company owned by lesbians declining to print T-shirts with a message describing gay marriage as an “abomination”;
- A printing company run by Roman Catholics declining an order to produce adverts calling for abortion on demand to be legalised.”
A ComRes poll conducted in March 2015 of 1,000 adults in Northern Ireland found that 90 per cent of voters say equality laws “should be used to protect people from discrimination and not to force people to say something they oppose”.
In the same poll, more than three quarters (79 per cent) stated that a Muslim printer should not be taken to court for refusing to print cartoons of Mohammed. Almost three quarters (74 per cent) believe a printing company run by Roman Catholics should not be forced by legal action to produce adverts calling for abortion to be legalised.