VIDEO of full statement: Ashers boss speaks at court in Belfast

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Christian bakery owners found guilty of discriminating against a gay man have said they are appealing against the court ruling to protect all family businesses with deeply-held convictions.

A judge at Belfast County Court said Ashers Baking Company, run by the McArthur family, acted unlawfully by declining an order from gay rights activist Gareth Lee.

The McArthurs arrive at court

The McArthurs arrive at court

Mr Lee, a member of the LGBT advocacy group Queer Space, had wanted a cake featuring Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie with the slogan Support Gay Marriage for a private function marking International Day Against Homophobia in May 2014.

He paid in full when placing the order at Ashers’ Belfast branch, but said he was stunned when - two days later - the company phoned to say it could not be processed.

The high profile case was heard over three days last March.

Delivering her reserved judgment two months later, District Judge Isobel Brownlie found Ashers directly discriminated against Mr Lee who had been treated “less favourably”, contrary to the law.

Ordering the bakers to pay agreed damages of £500, the judge said religious beliefs could not dictate the law.

The Northern Ireland Equality Commission, which monitors compliance with the region’s anti-discrimination laws, took the landmark legal action on behalf of Mr Lee.

The publicly funded watchdog had initially asked for the bakery on Belfast’s Royal Avenue to acknowledge it had breached legislation and offer “modest” damages but proceeded with the court challenge when the firm refused.

Ashers, which employs 80 staff in nine branches and delivers across the UK and Ireland, was supported by the Christian Institute - which organised public meetings and garnered financial backing.

In evidence, Mr Lee claimed the company’s refusal to make the cake left him feeling like a “lesser person”.

Karen McArthur, a director at Ashers, said she had accepted the order to avoid a confrontation or to avoid embarrassment in the shop, but as a born again Christian “knew in her heart” it could not be fulfilled.

General manager, Daniel McArthur, 26, said the family could not compromise their deeply held religious beliefs despite the legal ramifications.

The father of two said the legal wrangle had strengthened his faith in God.

He said: “It was clear we did not hate anyone. We didn’t want to discriminate against anyone. We did what we did because of our Christian beliefs.

“It’s done out of love for God, to obey him.

“Our hope and prayer would be that an appeal will allow us and other Christians to live out their faith in Jesus Christ in every part of their lives, including their workplace.”

The issue of gay marriage has split public opinion in Northern Ireland.

In 2005, the region became the first in the UK to allow same-sex civil partnerships but the devolved Stormont Assembly has repeatedly refused to change the law around marriage.

Following last May’s referendum in the Republic, it is now the only part of the UK or Ireland to deny civil marriage to same sex couples.

Two same sex couples are now seeking to challenge the ban through a judicial review in the courts.

SEE VIDEO OF EQUALITY COMMISSION BOSS DENOUNCING ‘MISINFORMATION’ OVER CASE AS HE ARRIVED AT COURT

FULL ASHERS STATEMENT (as sent to the News Letter):

We are looking forward to this opportunity to have our case heard by the Lord Chief Justice because we believe the county court got the original ruling wrong.

As I have said many times before, Ashers Baking Company does not discriminate against anyone.

We took issue with the message on the cake and not the customer and as a family we do believe we should retain the freedom to decline business that would force us to promote a cause with which we profoundly disagree.

As Christians we cannot simply switch off our faith when we enter the workplace on a Monday morning.

To be a Christian at all is to strive to live for Christ in every corner of our lives.

We served Mr Lee as we would any other customer.

We were simply unwilling to endorse a campaign for a new law that so clearly goes against what the Bible says about marriage.

And for that we were punished.

Christians are law-abiding citizens and we expect the law to protect us as much as anyone else.

We hope that the judicial system will now make the correct decision and protect our freedom to carry out our work without being forced to violate our consciences.

As a family we have found the whole legal process very difficult.

We would rather not have to be here today. But we knew that we had to appeal, not only on our own behalf, but on behalf of other family businesses who could be forced to endorse or promote views with which they profoundly disagree.

So today we appeal to the Lord Chief Justice and his colleagues to overturn the county court ruling.

We appeal to them to recognise that there is a big difference between refusing to serve someone because of their sexual orientation or political opinions, and choosing not to endorse those ideas.

We appeal to those who would condemn us for our actions to consider what they would have done if they were required by law to use their creative abilities to help promote a cause which went against their strongest convictions.

And we appeal to our fellow Christians, to have courage in the face of such challenges to our faith. We thank them for their prayers and ask them to continue to pray during the hearing and as the judges consider their ruling.

We know that most people do not think we have done anything wrong and we are grateful for the support of the many people who, though they disagree with us on marriage, recognise that we should not be forced to deny our beliefs.

Above all we continue to put our trust in God.

He is faithful. He is in control. His will be done.

Thank you.