Gay marriage cake bakers ‘forced to act against their beliefs’

Gay marriage cake bakers ‘forced to act against their beliefs’

Supreme court hears an appeal by Belfast bakery owners against a fine for refusal to make a cake

Daniel and Amy McArthur, the owners of Ashers bakery, arrive for the supreme court hearing in Belfast. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA
The Christian owners of a Belfast bakery who refused to make a cake promoting gay marriage are being forced to act against their consciences and religious beliefs, the supreme court has been told.

Ashers bakery, which has branches across Northern Ireland and is supported financially by the Christian Institute, is appealing against a £500 damages award made against it for refusing to produce the cake ordered by a gay activist in 2014.

David Scoffield QC, who represents the owners Daniel and Amy McArthur, told the supreme court: “This is a case of forced or compelled speech, unlike other cases which have come before the court.

“Mr. and Mrs. McArthur have been penalized by the state in the form of the judgment at the county court for failing, through their family company, to create and provide a product bearing an explicit slogan – ‘Support Gay Marriage’ – to which they have a genuine objection in conscience.

“The result of the approach taken by the district judge and court of appeal … is that someone providing bespoke goods must provide goods at the request of the customer, provided that is not unlawful – however offensive.”

Scoffield said the case raised an issue of principle since those with deeply held religious or philosophical convictions could be compelled to act against their beliefs. The McArthurs were being forced to “choose between operating their businesses or living and acting in accordance with their religious beliefs, and we say that cannot be the law”.

Gareth Lee had ordered the cake for an event to mark International Day Against Homophobia. Same-sex marriage is not legally recognized in Northern Ireland.

When Ashers refused to bake the cake, which was to have depicted the Sesame Street characters, Bert and Ernie, Lee sued. His case has been supported by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.

Lee, a volunteer member of the LGBT advocacy group Queer Space, told the initial hearing in 2015 that the refusal made him “feel I’m not worthy, a lesser person, and to me that was wrong”. The firm maintained it was a response to the message, not the customer.

Lee’s order was made shortly after the Democratic Unionist party used its power of veto in the Northern Ireland assembly to block moves to make same-sex marriage legal in the country. It is the only part of the UK where gay marriage is still not recognized in law.

Theresa May has said the issue is one for the devolved assembly at Stormont; there is no power-sharing executive.

Five supreme court justices are hearing the appeal in Belfast: the president, Lady Hale, the deputy president, Lord Mance, Lord Kerr, Lord Hodge and Lady Black. This is the first week that the supreme court has sat in Northern Ireland.

In the county court case, the district judge Isobel Brownlie ruled that religious beliefs could not dictate the law and ordered the firm to pay damages.

The court of appeal in Belfast upheld that ruling in 2016 after Ashers contended it never had an issue with Lee’s sexuality, rather the message he wanted on the cake.

The hearing continues.