Judge adjourns ‘gay cake’ case to consider evidence

The pro-gay marriage image and slogan which Ashers Baking Co. refused to print on the cake.
The pro-gay marriage image and slogan which Ashers Baking Co. refused to print on the cake.

The verdict in the ‘gay cake row’ court case involving Newtownabbey-based Ashers Baking Company may not be delivered for several weeks.

The three-day hearing at Belfast County Court concluded on Monday, March 30. But district judge Isobel Brownlie reserved judgement so that “full consideration” can be given to all the evidence.

Adjourning the civil case, the judge said: “It is not a straightforward area of the law. Obviously this is a case in which I propose to reserve my judgement.”

The high profile case against Ashers was brought by gay rights activist Gareth Lee after the company’s Royal Avenue shop refused to fulfil his order for a cake carrying the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’.

While Mr Lee, backed by the Equality Commission, claimed that he was discriminated against because of his sexuality, Ashers’ owners denied the charge, claiming that they only refused to produce the £36 cake as the pro-gay marriage slogan requested as part of the iced decoration went against their firmly held Christian beliefs.

During the hearing, the court heard Mr Lee’s barrister claim that the word “gay” was at the heart of the issue.

Robin Allen QC said: “It is clear that if the word gay had been replaced by the word heterosexual, the order would have been accepted.

“It is clear that if the word gay had been missing it would have been accepted.”

Mr Allen claimed there was a clear breach of contract and that Ashers had not been asked to endorse gay marriage.

“If you take the factual analysis, shorn of any meaning, it is the word gay in the phrase that was the cause of the differential treatment,” he added.

“It is important to be clear that this is not about a contract of support.”

Nine members of the McArthur family work at the bakery business, which has six branches, employs around 80 staff and delivers across the UK and Ireland.

Earlier, a lawyer for Ashers directors Colin and Karen McArthur and their son Daniel McArthur, the firm’s general manager, said it was a clear “promotion” case.

David Scoffield QC said: “This is not merely an issue of fact. The defendants subsequently would feel they were supporting the cause.

“They would be doing something that would be against their conscience.”

Mr Scoffield said that if the plaintiff (Mr Lee) was right, it would have far-reaching consequences for other business owners, giving the example of a Muslim printer being unable to decline to print cartoons of the prophet Mohammed.

Same-sex marriage remains a contentious issue in Northern Ireland and attempts to have it legalised have been repeatedly rejected by the devolved Assembly.

The cake row has prompted a proposal to include a so-called “conscience clause” in equality legislation.