Sunday 26 February 2017

Gay cake case set for the highest court in UK

Alan Erwin

Daniel McArthur, director of Ashers Bakery, with his wife Amy outside the Court of Appeal after losing their appeal last month.
Daniel McArthur, director of Ashers Bakery, with his wife Amy outside the Court of Appeal after losing their appeal last month.

The Christian bakers found to have unlawfully refused to make a cake with a pro gay-marriage slogan may have a new route of appeal to the UK's highest court, it has emerged.

Lawyers for the McArthur family had believed they were left with no further challenge to verdicts reached in the landmark civil action.

But senior judges in Belfast have now raised the possibility that a section of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 could provide them with a way of getting to the Supreme Court.

Adjourning the case, Lord Chief Justice Declan Morgan told counsel for the McArthurs: "You need to make a decision whether you wish to pursue it."

Last month the Court of Appeal upheld a finding that the family, who run Ashers Baking Company, directly discriminated against customer Gareth Lee.

Mr Lee sued after his order was declined at Ashers' Belfast city centre shop in May 2014.

The activist had requested a cake depicting 'Sesame Street' characters Bert and Ernie below the motto 'Support Gay Marriage' to mark International Day Against Homophobia.

The bakery refunded his money for the order, because the message went against their Christian faith. The family insist their problem was with the cake and not the customer.

But Mr Lee claimed he was left feeling like a lesser person.

Last year Belfast County Court held that the bakery had unlawfully discriminated against Mr Lee on grounds of sexual orientation and religious belief or political opinion.

The firm was also ordered to pay £500 (€580) compensation to Mr Lee, whose legal action was backed by the Equality Commission.

But during a hearing at the Court of Appeal, lawyers for the McArthurs argued it would have been sinful for them to complete the order - and was wrong to force a choice between operating a business or adhering to faith.

Northern Ireland Attorney General John Larkin QC backed the McArthurs' case by contending that forcing them to complete the order could amount to cruelty. He submitted that it was wrong to force them to express a political view in conflict with their faith, adding they should have constitutional protection.

Counsel representing the Equality Commission argued that the family's entitlement to express religious beliefs should not "trump" Mr Lee's rights.

He told the court that the bakery's objection to using the word 'gay' meant there was direct discrimination.

Backing that position last month, Lord Chief Justice Declan Morgan held that the company cannot provide a service that only reflects their own political or religious message in relation to sexual orientation.

The case returned to the Court of Appeal yesterday following notification by the Attorney General of his intention to make a reference to the Supreme Court.

But proceedings were adjourned to allow the family's legal team to examine a potential appeal option under schedule 12 of the Northern Ireland Act.

Irish Independent

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