BELFAST, May 21, 2015 (LifeSiteNews.com) – A Belfast County Court judge issued a precedent-setting ruling when she found a Christian-owned family bakery guilty of “direct discrimination” for refusing to bake a cake supporting same-sex “marriage.”
“The defendants have unlawfully discriminated against the plaintiff on grounds of sexual discrimination,” said District Judge Isobel Brownlie in her decision. “This is direct discrimination for which there can be no justification.”
Colin and Karen McArthur, a Christian couple that runs seven shops and employs 80 people in Northern Ireland, own Ashers Baking Company. The name of their cake shops is taken from the Bible: Asher is one of the tribes of Israel known for its skilled bakers.
Last year, Gareth Lee of the homosexual pressure group QueerSpace asked the Ashers bakery in Newtonabbey to make a cake for an event in observance of the “International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.”
Lee asked for a cake decorated with the slogan “Support Gay Marriage,” along with the QueerSpace logo and a picture of Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie.
Ashers' general manager Daniel McArthur told Lee that he declined the request on conscience grounds, noting that the wording and graphics clashed with the Christian ethos of the couple's business.
The family believed things had been settled amicably, and QueerSpace was able to get another bakery to make a cake with their preferred decoration.
But Lee subsequently filed a complaint against Ashers with the Equality Commission.
The McArthurs stood their ground and refused to be cowed by the Equality Commission's demand that they bake a cake that violated their beliefs.
“We don’t want to be forced to promote a cause which is against our biblical beliefs,” Daniel said in a statement released before the trial by the Christian Institute, which is working to support the McArthur family. “We’re continuing to hold to the stand that we took originally because we believe it’s biblical, we believe it’s what God would want us to do, and we also think that if we do cave in to the Equality Commission at this point it’ll put pressure on other citizens who are defending their view of traditional marriage.”
But the judge rejected their pleas.
“I do not accept” the bakers' arguments that advocating for same-sex “marriage” on a cake “would require them to promote and support gay marriage, which is contrary to their deeply held religious beliefs. Much as I acknowledge fully their religious belief is [sic] that gay marriage is sinful, they are in a business supplying services to all, however constituted. The law requires them to do just that,” the judge stated.
She added that while the defendants had a right to religious beliefs, “they are limited as to how they manifest them,” stating that they may not “manifest them in the commercial sphere if it is contrary to the rights of others.”
Judge Brownlie ordered the bakers to pay £500 ($784 U.S.) in damages.
Speaking outside the court house after the ruling, he said he was “extremely disappointed with the judgment,” but he looks forward to appeal the decision.
“We've said from the start that our issue was with the message on the cake, not with the customer, and that we didn't know what the sexual orientation of Mr Lee was. And it wasn't relevant, either,” he said. “We've always been happy to serve any customers who come into our shops.”
“The ruling suggests that all business owners will have to be willing to promote any cause or campaign, no matter how much they disagree with it or – as the Equality Commission has suggested – they should perhaps just close down. But we won't be closing down,” McArthur declared. “We certainly don't think we've done anything wrong, and we will be taking legal advice to consider our options.”
The head of the Equality Commission, Michael Wardlow told the Guardian that Christians who want to run their businesses according to their religious beliefs may be squeezed out of most commercial activity. “I would then say: Either look at the law or maybe that is not the business they should be in.”
Simon Calvert, spokesman for The Christian Institute, said it was “outrageous for the head of the Equality Commission himself to imply that Christians who want to live their lives according to their deeply-held beliefs must toe the line or change jobs.”
“It is simply baffling for a body supposedly working for equality to be threatening a Christian family, all because of a cake,” Calvert said. “The commission is throwing the kitchen sink at this case, and is wasting tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money in the process.”
Northern Ireland's politicians have already weighed in on the ruling, slamming both the cost to taxpayers and the judgment itself.
Jim Allister, leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) Party, said, “One of the most frustrating things about the Ashers case is that the persecution of a family-owned business was financed by the public purse.”
“The Office of the First and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) provides the funding for the Equality Commission who have taken the case,” Allister told the Belfast News Letter.
The Equality Commission reportedly spent £33,000 (about $52,000 U.S.) on the case.
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“Many taxpayers in Northern Ireland are rightly outraged by the fact that their money was used in this way. That is why I proposed an amendment to the Executive’s annual spending plans which would have slashed the commission’s budget,” Allister said.
Lagan Valley MLA Paul Givan of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who introduced a Freedom of Conscience Bill in December 2014 as a result of the Ashers case, called the ruling an “attack” on Christians.
“What we cannot have is a hierarchy of rights, and today [because of this ruling] there's a clear hierarchy being established that gay rights are more important than the rights of people to hold religious beliefs,” Givan told the BBC.
DUP Leader and First Minister Rt. Hon. Peter Robinson said he wants “to see a society in Northern Ireland which is tolerant of everyone’s views. That tolerance must include provisions to ensure that those with deeply held religious views are protected.”
A video of Daniel McArthur speaking about the ruling is available here.
The full text of the judgment in Gareth Lee v. Ashers Baking Co. is available here.