A Newtownabbey bakery threatened with legal action for refusing to print ‘Support Gay Marriage’ on a cake has defended its Christian stance.
Ashers Baking Company, which is owned by a Christian family, received a letter from the Equality Commission threatening legal action after it refused to bake the cake featuring Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie.
The company, which stands by its actions, has been put in touch with a law firm by The Christian Institute - a charity which promotes the Christian religion in the UK.
The bakery, which has been running for 22 years, refused to take the order for the cake, saying that the requested decoration conflicted with their Christian beliefs.
The cake was ordered at Ashers’ Belfast branch in May by Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) activist Gareth Lee, who asked for it to be decorated with the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’ and the logo of his campaign group, QueerSpace.
In a further twist, it appears that the cake may have been ordered to celebrate the ‘International Day Against Homophobia’ on May 17.
Speaking through The Christian Institute, General Manager of Ashers Baking Company, Daniel McArthur stated: “The directors and myself considered it and looked at it and we thought that this order was at odds with our beliefs, certainly it was in contradiction with what the Bible teaches.
“We rang up the customer to let him know we couldn’t take his order. Marriage in Northern Ireland has not been redefined - it still is defined as being the union between one man and one woman. This was another factor to consider in our decision making process.”
Mr McArthur revealed that the ‘gay marriage cake’ was not the first design which the bakery had turned down, after previously refusing orders which contained ‘pornographic images’ and ‘offensive language.’
Six weeks after a colleague of Mr Lee’s collected a full refund for the cake order, the bakery received a letter from the Equality Commission.
Mr McArthur continued: “The letter said that we had discriminated against the customer on the grounds of his sexual orientation. It asked us to propose how we would recompense the customer for this discrimination. It also said it would pursue legal proceedings if we didn’t respond within a seven-day time period. I was very surprised to receive the letter, especially as we hadn’t spoken to them and they certainly hadn’t tried to contact us.”
The letter from the Equality Commission to Ashers states: “We have advised Mr Lee that you have acted unlawfully and contrary to the Regulation 5 of the Equality Act (Sexual Orientations) regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006 which prohibits the provision of goods and services to a person seeking or obtaining to use those goods, facilities or services on the grounds of sexual orientation.”
After receiving the letter, Ashers contacted The Christian Institute.
Institute director, Colin Hart said: “All the McArthurs want is to run their bakery according to their Christian beliefs. There won’t be many situations where they need to turn down an order but this is obviously one of them. No-one should be forced to use their creative skills to promote a cause which goes against their conscience. Imbalanced equality laws are making it increasingly hard for people, especially Christians.
“Imagine the uproar if the Equality Commission said that an environmentally-conscious baker had to produce a cake saying ‘Support fracking’, or if they threatened a feminist bakery for refusing to print a ‘Sharia for UK’ cake.
“Millions of ordinary people who do not agree with gay marriage, face intimidation and the real threat of legal action from the forces of political correctness if they, out of conscience, decline to provide goods or services to campaign groups they do not agree with or support.
“It establishes a dangerous precedent about the power of the state over an individual or business to force them to go against their deeply held beliefs.
“The Government must take urgent action to address this injustice by bringing in legislation that would introduce reasonable accommodation to protect those, who for religious or philosophical reasons, believe that marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman.”
Mr McArthur concluded: “I feel if we don’t take our stand with this here case, then how can we stand up against it further down the line, certainly from an equality point of view? Although we have found this experience certainly unsettling and disruptive to our day-to-day business, we are certainly convinced that we have made the right decision. We continue to take the stand and the stance that we do take.
“I would like the outcome of this to be that any Christians running a business would be allowed to follow their Christian beliefs and principles in the day-to-day running of their business and that they are allowed to make decisions based on that.”
In a statement, the Equality Commission said: “The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland provides advice and can provide assistance to people who complain to us that they have suffered unlawful discrimination.
“In this case the Commission has granted assistance to the complainant, and has written to the company concerned on his behalf. The Commission will consider any response before taking further action.”
The Commission’s stance has been backed by Alliance Councillor Tom Campbell, who told The Times: “I would hope that Ashers would consider the damaging PR that this controversy brings and review their decision. It could be seen to be offensive to a sizeable minority and looks as if it could bring legal action and financial cost. Ashers is a company which is a great attribute to the Newtownabbey business community but events of this nature are unhelpful and may be offensive.”