‘Gay cake’ case: UK Supreme Court in Belfast for first time as Ashers Baking Co seeks to have NI court compelled speech decision overturned
The ‘gay cake’ case will next week go before five judges sitting in the highest court in the United Kingdom.
The Supreme Court will consider the appeal by the Belfast-based Ashers Baking Company over its refusal – almost four years ago – to bake a cake bearing the campaign slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’.
The Christian-owned company, operated by the McArthur family, has been dragged through the courts in Northern Ireland by the state-funded equality watchdog, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI).
An estimated £200,000 in legal bills were incurred by Ashers and the company was ordered to pay £500 damages to a gay rights activist who tried to order the cake which would have cost a mere £36.50.
However, in December 2016 the Court of Appeal in Belfast – which upheld the original County Court judgment – left the way open for the family to take the matter further when Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan stated: “We consider the matter should be properly left to the Supreme Court.”
Now the Supreme Court will hear legal arguments as part of a two-day hearing starting on 1 May, during its historic first visit to Belfast.
Daniel McArthur, the General Manager of Ashers, said:
“The hearing on May 1 will take place almost four years to the day from when we were approached to make a cake bearing a slogan totally contrary to our Christian beliefs. We politely said no and the order was fulfilled by another local bakery. Yet here we are four years later still defending the right not to be forced into someone else’s campaign.
“Having the Supreme Court in Belfast hearing our arguments shows they recognise the seriousness of the issues at stake and that is an encouragement to us.”
The family has been supported throughout by The Christian Institute, which has funded their legal defence. Members of the public have been sending the Newcastle-based charity financial donations to assist with the costs of the case.
Spokesman Simon Calvert said: “Ashers’ legal team has been preparing for some considerable time for this crucial appeal. We are pleased the Supreme Court has decided to give them a hearing.”
He added: “We believe the rulings in the lower courts undermine democratic freedom, religious freedom and free speech. It is not right to compel people to help make statements, whether in ink or in icing, with which they profoundly disagree.
“There are important principles at stake in this case which affect everyone. A truly tolerant society must allow for differences of belief.”
Ahead of the court hearing a series of packed public meetings have been held this week in Craigavon, Bangor, Antrim, Limavady and Clogher Valley which were attended by almost 2000 Ashers supporters.
Mr Calvert said:
“It is a reflection of the strength of public feeling that so many people wanted to come out to show their support for Ashers. Not many other causes could generate attendances like this in five different towns across Northern Ireland within one week. I’ve spoken with the family and I know they are encouraged that public support continues to be very high. All eyes now are on the Supreme Court next week. Let’s hope justice is done.”
It is understood the Supreme Court will also hear arguments from the Attorney General for Northern Ireland, John Larkin, who questioned the validity of the laws used against the bakery.
The Equality Commission will also be in court.
The case has attracted widespread public interest and media attention.
In 2015, a Belfast County Court judge held that the bakery had unlawfully discriminated against gay rights activist Gareth Lee on grounds of sexual orientation and religious belief or political opinion when it turned down his order for the campaign cake.
Mr Lee, a member of the LGBT advocacy group QueerSpace, approached the Equality Commission after he was refused an order for a cake featuring Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie with the phrase “Support Gay Marriage” for a gay rights event.
As part of the judgment against them, Ashers was ordered to pay £500 compensation to Mr Lee for injury to feelings.
Ashers went to the Court of Appeal in Belfast in May 2016 in a bid to overturn the decision. The Court of Appeal ruled against Ashers but decided in December of that year to leave it to the Supreme Court to decide whether to hear a further appeal.
Mr Calvert said: “The family has been buoyed by the enormous public support they have received throughout the last four years. They are hugely grateful for the thoughts and prayers of so many people in Northern Ireland, throughout the UK, in the Irish Republic and around the world.”
Five justices – the Supreme Court president Lady Hale, deputy president Lord Mance, the former lord chief justice of Northern Ireland Lord Kerr, Lord Hodge and Lady Black – will sit in the Inn of Court in The Bar Library off the Great Hall of the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast.
The Supreme Court will consider two main issues:
Whether the Appellants directly discriminated against a customer, the Respondent, on the grounds of sexual orientation, contrary to the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (NI) 2006 (“the 2006 Regulations”), and religious and political belief, contrary to the Fair Employment and treatment (NI) Order 1998 (the “1998 Order”), by refusing to make a cake decorated with the words “Support Gay Marriage”.
Whether the relevant provisions of the 2006 Regulations and 1998 Order breached the Appellants’ rights under Article 9 and/or 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“the Convention”), separately or together with Article 14 of the Convention.
The hearing will be open to the public and will also be streamed live.
NOTES FOR EDITORS
The case follows a decision in 2014 by Ashers to decline an order placed at its Belfast shop by a gay rights activist asking for a £36.50 cake featuring the Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie, with the campaign slogan, ‘Support Gay Marriage’.
The customer also wanted the cake to feature the logo of a Belfast-based campaign group called QueerSpace. Ashers refused to make the cake because it carried a message contrary to the firmly-held Christian beliefs of the owners.
Ashers Baking Company is being assisted by The Christian Institute, a non-denominational national charity which since 1991 has been working on issues including religious liberty and marriage and the family.
Ashers Baking Company Limited was set up in 1992 by Colin and Karen McArthur, who are the owners and directors.
The McArthurs’ son, Daniel, is the company’s General Manager. All three are Christians. They have previously refused other cake printing orders which included pornographic pictures and offensive language, since they clearly conflicted with the teachings of their Christian faith.
The legal action against Ashers Baking Company is being funded by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI) – a taxpayer-funded public body with an annual budget in excess of £10 million.
The ECNI claims the company’s actions violate equality laws in Northern Ireland and alleges discrimination under two anti-discrimination statutes – The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (NI) 2006 and The Fair Employment and Treatment (NI) Order 1998.
The ECNI is in favour of introducing same-sex marriage. Its website states: “The Commission supports the introduction of legislation permitting same sex marriage…including sufficient safeguards for religious organisations”.
The Northern Ireland Assembly has rejected five attempts to redefine marriage since October 2012.
After losing the initial County Court case, Ashers issued a statement in May 2015 making clear that it would now only take orders for birthday cakes and baby cakes. Their online ordering portal is limited to birthday cakes to reflect this policy.
Watch a BBC interview with Daniel and Amy McArthur speaking about the court case. Recorded Feb 2016 and featured on BBC One’s – ‘The Battle for Christianity’:
Watch Daniel and Amy’s interview with Sky News recorded in October 2016:
Read a fact sheet with more details about the case:
Read Aidan O’Neill QC’s legal opinion on the case: