'˜Equality Commission will be responsible for paying the vast majority of their expensive legal bills'
Christian bakers found to have unlawfully refused to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan are to press ahead with attempts to take their case to the Supreme Court.
Lawyers for the McArthur family can now petition directly for a hearing in London after being formally refused leave to appeal by senior judges in Belfast.
Ashers Baking Company was also ordered to pay limited costs in the landmark legal battle with customer Gareth Lee.
Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan said: “This is a case about a £36 cake and a £500 claim for damages.
“The costs should be proportionate to the issues involved.”
Outside court it was claimed the ruling means the Equality Commission, who backed Mr Lee’s case, will have to pay most of its own expensive legal bill.
Meanwhile, another potential route to the Supreme Court is still to be determined.
Northern Ireland Attorney General John Larkin QC claims he has power to refer the verdict under points of devolution.
Sir Declan and two other judges heard competing arguments on whether proceedings were still active when he made his move.
In October the Court of Appeal upheld a finding that the family, who run Ashers’, directly discriminated against Mr Lee due to his sexuality.
The gay rights activist sued after his order was declined at the company’s Belfast city centre shop in May 2014.
Mr Lee had requested a cake depicting Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie below the motto ‘Support Gay Marriage’ for an event to mark International Day Against Homophobia.
Bosses at the bakery refunded his money for the order because the message went against their Christian faith.
The family insist their problem was with the cake and not the customer.
But Mr Lee claimed he was left feeling like a lesser person.
Last year Belfast County Court held that the bakery had unlawfully discriminated against him on grounds of sexual orientation and religious belief or political opinion.
The firm was also ordered to pay £500 compensation to Mr Lee.
Lawyers for the McArthurs appealed the ruling, arguing it would have been sinful for them to complete the order.
Counsel for the family claimed it was wrong to force them to choose between operating a business or adhering to their faith.
Rejecting allegations that the bakery subjected Mr Lee to direct discrimination, he insisted the refusal was solely due to conscience and nothing to do with the customer or his political opinion.
Mr Larkin, Northern Ireland’s top law officer, backed the McArthurs’ case by contending that it was wrong to force them to express a political view in conflict with their faith.
Counsel representing the Equality Commission insisted the family’s entitlement to express religious beliefs should not “trump” Mr Lee’s rights.
He told the court that the bakery’s objection to using the word gay meant there was direct discrimination.
Sir Declan, sitting with Lord Justices Weatherup and Weir, held that the company cannot provide a service that only reflects their own political or religious message in relation to sexual orientation.
The Lord Chief Justice pointed out that the McArthurs had not been asked to support gay marriage.
In his ruling in October he said: “The fact that a baker provides a cake for a particular team or portrays witches on a Halloween cake does not indicate any support for either.”
Following further submissions today on attempts to take the case to London, Sir Declan confirmed: “We refuse leave to appeal; we consider the matter should be properly left to the Supreme Court.”
Awarding costs of the appeal to Mr Lee, he stressed that the amount was being limited to the County Court scale.
Before the judges rose, they were also told that the Equality Commission does not generally take sides in disputes involving conflicting rights.
Addressing a point raised about potential mediation, counsel representing the body insisted it would have acted the same way if the roles were reversed.
Outside court a spokesman for The Christian Institute, which is backing the McArthur family, claimed the outcome dramatically limits the amount of legal costs the Commission can recover.
“The Equality Commission will be responsible for paying the vast majority of their expensive legal bills,” he said.
The spokesman added: “Ashers Baking Company will take the necessary legal steps to instigate a Supreme Court appeal on this crucially important matter as soon as possible.”