Wednesday 13 November 2019

Equality body that supported gay man in same-sex cake row 'vindicated'

Daniel and Amy McArthur of Ashers Bakery leaving Belfast County Court yesterday. Photo: PA
Daniel and Amy McArthur of Ashers Bakery leaving Belfast County Court yesterday. Photo: PA

Michael McHugh

An equality body that supported a gay man in his legal battle against Ashers Bakery says it has been vindicated.

Chief commissioner of the Equality Commission Michael Wardlow claimed the landmark victory at a Northern Ireland court was clear and robust.

The Christian owners of the bakery were found to have discriminated against a gay man when they refused to make a cake carrying a slogan that promoted same-sex marriage.

Mr Wardlow said: "We want to act with generosity because this is the reason we are here. We are here to help people who could not otherwise help themselves."

A judge at Belfast County Court found that Ashers Baking Company acted unlawfully by declining the request from gay rights activist Gareth Lee last year.

Ordering the company to pay damages of £500, District Judge Isobel Brownlie said religious beliefs could not dictate the law.

Mr Wardlow said: "It sends out the signal confirming the law as we understood it. It says to people who take part in commercial enterprises that they must act within the anti-discrimination framework.

"The judge did say she respected the strongly held faith of those who work for Ashers but she said when she was applying the fair balance here it was clear, looking at case law, that the current anti-discrimination law provides that fair balance.

"This actually vindicates the reason for an organisation like the Equality Commission to be in existence."

He added: "We started off by saying that we believed that there had been a discriminatory act. The judge has upheld it - that both under sexual orientation regulations, political and religious opinion, that there were discriminatory acts."

Ashers owner Daniel McArthur said he was extremely disappointed.

"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."

He claimed the Equality Commission had suggested businesses who acted like his should close down.

"That cannot be right but we won't be closing down.

"We certainly don't think we have done anything wrong and we will be taking legal advice to consider our options."

Democratic Unionist Party Assembly member Paul Givan accused the commission of using the "blunt instrument" of the courts to "drag" a Christian family through the legal process.

"What we cannot have is a hierarchy of rights. Today there is a clear point being established that gay rights are more important than the rights of people to hold religious beliefs and we need to move in the Assembly to strike the right balance."

Mr Givan is attempting to introduce a conscience clause to law at the devolved Assembly at Stormont protecting religious belief.

Robin Allen QC, who represented the Equality Commission in court, said if a bakery run by a gay man refused to ice a cake saying support opposite-sex marriage it would be equally unlawful.

"It does prove the point that there is not a hierarchy of rights, it is just that they broke the law."

Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness tweeted: "Ashers bakery judgement a good result for equality, gay people have for far too long been discriminated against. We and the law on their side."

John O'Doherty from gay rights group the Rainbow Project said that while some people might be sympathetic to the position in which the company finds itself, it does not change the facts.

"The judge clearly articulated that this is direct discrimination for which there can be no justification."

PA Media

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