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Gay marriage cake case: 'Law must not be determined by those who shout loudest'

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Daniel and Amy McArthur arriving at Belfast County Court to fight a challenge by Northern Ireland's Equality Commission following their refusal to make a cake bearing a pro-gay marriage slogan Photo credit: David Young/PA Wire

Daniel and Amy McArthur arriving at Belfast County Court to fight a challenge by Northern Ireland's Equality Commission following their refusal to make a cake bearing a pro-gay marriage slogan Photo credit: David Young/PA Wire

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Daniel and Amy McArthur arriving at Belfast County Court to fight a challenge by Northern Ireland's Equality Commission following their refusal to make a cake bearing a pro-gay marriage slogan Photo credit: David Young/PA Wire

A legal case involving a Christian baker who refused to make a cake bearing a pro-gay marriage slogan cannot be determined on which side shouts loudest, a court in Belfast has been told.

Northern Ireland's Equality Commission is bringing the case against family-run Ashers Bakery on behalf of gay rights activist Gareth Lee, whose order was declined.

Belfast-based Ashers, which is owned by the McArthur family, refused to make a cake with an image of Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie below the motto "Support Gay Marriage".

Opening the case, Robin Allen QC, representing Mr Lee, noted the publicity around the case and highlighted that politicians, church figures, bloggers and others had expressed opinions on the matter.

But the barrister insisted the case must be judged on the facts alone.

"Law must not be determined by those who shout loudest," he said.

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Ernie and Bert

Ernie and Bert

Ernie and Bert

Mr Allen said he was not in court to challenge the McArthur family's faith.

"This is a case about commerce and discrimination," he said.

The case is being heard at Belfast County Court by district judge Isobel Brownlie.

The commission, which monitors compliance with equality laws in the region, has alleged that the stance of the company was in breach of legislation.

The case has sharply divided public opinion in Northern Ireland and beyond, making headlines across the world.

In the wake of the bakery's refusal to provide the service last May, the commission, a state-funded watchdog body, took on the case on behalf of Mr Lee.

Initially, the commission asked the bakery to acknowledge that it had breached legislation and offer "modest" damages to the customer.

When Ashers refused, the commission proceeded with the legal action.

Arriving at court ahead of the hearing, Daniel McArthur, flanked by wife Amy, said he was putting his trust in God.

Mr Allen said some had portrayed Ashers as "David" to the Equality Commission's "Goliath".

But he stressed that the case involved a dispute between Mr Lee and a bakery which was a £1 million international enterprise.

"In circumstances such as these, you might say Mr Lee was David and Ashers Goliath," he said.

But the barrister added: "I promise not to use (any more) biblical quotations in this case - they don't help."

Outlining his view of the facts, Mr Allen said Mr Lee had used the bakery in Royal Avenue in Belfast city centre "regularly" before the incident.

He said his client had seen a leaflet in the shop advertising a service whereby images could be printed in edible icing on a cake.

He said there was nothing on the leaflet which suggested a limitation on the service due to "religious scruples".

He noted that one of the images on the leaflet was of a Halloween cake with a green witch on it.

The barrister told the court that the order was accepted by Ashers director Karen McArthur and Mr Lee paid for it in full.

"A contract was therefore concluded," he said.

Mr Allen said that, over the next few days, Mrs McArthur expressed concern about the requested cake design with her daughter-in-law, Amy, and the matter was then discussed with her son, Daniel.

After that Mr Lee was informed that his order would not be processed due to the family's religious views, said the lawyer.

Mr Allen insisted that the baking of a cake did not involve endorsing any message carried on it and highlighted that the proposed design would not have had an Ashers logo on it.

He compared the baking of a cake to a postman delivering a letter or a printer printing a poster.

"A postman taking a letter to the door or a printer carrying out a printing job - nobody would say that involved promoting or support," he said. "It's simply a functional relationship, a working relationship."

Daniel and Amy McArthur sat on one side of an almost packed courtroom, with Mr Lee watching from the other side.

The Ashers case has prompted the Democratic Unionist Party to propose a law change at Stormont that would provide an "equality clause" which would essentially enable businesses to refuse to provide certain services on religious grounds.

Sinn Fein has vowed to oppose the Private Member's Bill.

Mr Allen acknowledged that a "section of society" wanted amendments to the law.

He said that was a legitimate objective to pursue but stressed that the case before the court had to be judged on the law as it stands.

"It's a complete fallacy to think you can secure an amendment to regulations through defending a litigation," he argued.

Mr Allen told Judge Brownlie that it was her job to apply the law, not make the law.

"You can't second-guess the legislature," he said.

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