Gay cake case: UK Supreme Court to hear legal arguments as Ashers Baking Company seek to have Northern Ireland court discrimination decision overturned
The ‘gay cake’ case is to go before judges sitting in the highest court in the United Kingdom.
The UK Supreme Court has listed a hearing to consider a possible appeal by the Belfast-based Ashers Baking Company over its refusal 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 for more than two years by the country’s state-funded equality watchdog, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI).
After an estimated £200,000 in legal bills were incurred by Ashers 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 rubber-stamped the original County Court judgment – left the way open for the firm 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 has agreed to hear legal arguments at a hearing scheduled to take place over two days in October.
Last night Daniel McArthur, the General Manager of Ashers, welcomed the decision and said:
“The fact that the Supreme Court is willing to hear arguments is very encouraging and reflects the importance of the issues and the high-profile nature of the case.”
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 donations to assist with the costs of the case.
Spokesman Simon Calvert said: “This is a very important development. The Supreme Court does not consider every case which is brought to its attention and our legal team has already started to prepare for the crucial hearings which lie ahead.”
He added: “We understand the Supreme Court will hear initial arguments from which they will then determine if they are to grant a full appeal hearing.
“If the judges agree to the appeal it will take place immediately during the two days set aside for the case to be discussed.
He added: “This is a vitally important case. The ruling in the Belfast court undermines democratic freedom. It undermines religious freedom. It undermines free speech.”
It is understood the Supreme Court will also hear arguments from the Attorney General for Northern Ireland, John Larkin who entered the case and who has argued in relation to the validity of the laws that were used against the bakery.
The ECNI will also be represented.
The case has attracted widespread public interest and media attention.
In 2015, Belfast County Court 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, raised the action after he was refused an order for a cake featuring Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie with the phrase “Support Gay Marriage” for a private function marking International Day Against Homophobia.
As part of the judgment, Ashers was also 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 last year to leave it to the Supreme Court to decide whether to hear a further appeal.
Mr Calvert said:
“The family continues to receive huge levels of support from the general public of Northern Ireland and from across the world. They are extremely grateful for the thoughts and prayers of their supporters.
“In addition to the McArthurs’ legal action, the Attorney General sought to refer the case to the Supreme Court for it to rule on his arguments about whether the laws that were used against the McArthurs are constitutionally valid.”
The case follows a decision in 2014 by Ashers to decline an order placed at its Belfast store 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, 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 – a taxpayer-funded public body with an annual budget in excess of £6 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.
NOTES FOR EDITORS
Watch a video of Daniel and Amy McArthur speaking about the court case. Recorded Feb 2016. As featured on BBC One – ‘The Battle for Christianity’: https://youtu.be/-Y4-pmnF2L8
Read a fact sheet with more details about the case:
Read Aidan O’Neill QC’s legal opinion on the case: http://www.christian.org.uk/wp-content/downloads/opinion-re-ashers-bakery-case_12March2015.pdf
For further information contact:
The Christian Institute