Christian bakers found guilty of discrimination for refusing to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan have insisted their appeal has implications for freedom of expression across the UK.
The McArthur family, who run Ashers Baking Company in Belfast, are seeking to overturn a judgment which found they acted unlawfully by declining the order placed by LGBT activist Gareth Lee in 2014.
Arriving at the Court of Appeal in Belfast on Monday, Daniel McArthur, 26, Ashers’ general manager, said he hoped the appeal judges would not require the company to “endorse a view that goes against our conscience”.
He noted that the appeal is starting two years to the day when the order for the cake was placed. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK and Ireland where same-sex marriage remains outlawed.
“Two years ago today we were asked to help promote a campaign to redefine marriage in Northern Ireland,” said Mr McArthur.
“We never imagined that two years later we would find ourselves still living with the consequences of that request.”
Four days have been set aside for the hearing before Northern Ireland’s Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan, and two other top judges at Belfast High Court.
An earlier appeal had been scheduled for February but proceedings were postponed after a last-minute intervention from Attorney General John Larkin QC, who advises Stormont politicians on legal matters.
The Northern Ireland Equality Commission, which monitors compliance with the region’s anti-discrimination laws, brought the landmark civil action against Ashers on behalf of Mr Lee.
Outside court, Mr McArthur said: “The Attorney General’s involvement confirms there are big issues at stake.
“This was never just a case about one little bakery in Belfast. It’s always had implications for freedom of expression throughout the UK.”
The high-profile case was heard at Belfast County Court over three days last March.
Mr Lee, a member of the LGBT advocacy group Queer Space, had wanted a cake featuring Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie with the phrase “Support Gay Marriage” for a private function marking International Day Against Homophobia.
He paid the £36.50 in full at Ashers’ Belfast city centre branch but was telephoned two days later and told the company could not fulfil his order.
In evidence, Ashers’ owner Karen McArthur said, as a born-again Christian, she knew in her heart she could not make the cake but had taken the order to avoid a confrontation in the shop.
Daniel McArthur also told the court his family could not compromise their religious beliefs, despite the legal ramifications.
Mr Lee claimed he was left feeling like a lesser person.
Delivering her findings, District Judge Isobel Brownlie said the bakers had breached equality legislation and directly discriminated against Mr Lee, contrary to the law.
Ordering Ashers to pay agreed damages of £500, the judge said religious beliefs could not dictate the law.
Ashers Baking Company has six branches, employs more than 80 people and delivers across the UK and Ireland.
Throughout the legal battle they have been supported by The Christian Institute which has organised public rallies and garnered financial backing for the case.
The case is estimated to have cost in excess of £100,000 to run so far.
Mr Lee arrived ahead of the hearing with Chief Commissioner of the NI Equality Commission Dr Michael Wardlow.
Mr Wardlow insisted faith was not being put on trial.
“This is case about a man who walked into a shop two years ago and didn’t get the service that he would expect,” he said.
“And I don’t want Northern Ireland to be a lottery where when we go into a shop or ask for a service that we have to second-guess the conscience or value base of the service provider.
“I think it’s important also to mention this was not just about sexual orientation, this was about political and religious opinion and it strikes at the heart of what I believe to be the common good.
“We had a very good judgment a year ago in the county court and I hope when we have the appeal this week as well that the judgment is upheld because, if it’s not upheld, we are back into a lottery again.