Opinion divided: The pro-gay marriage cake featured Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie
A bakery which refused to make a cake carrying a pro-gay marriage slogan has been found guilty of discrimination.
The Christian-owned Ashers Baking Company stood accused of discrimination after declining to produce a cake with an image of Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie below the motto Support Gay Marriage.
It had been ordered by gay rights activist Gareth Lee for a private function marking International Day Against Homophobia last May.
Ruling: Ashers Baking Company was told there could be ‘no justification’ for discrimination
The Northern Ireland Equality Commission – which monitors compliance with the region’s anti-discrimination laws – brought the case on behalf of Mr Lee, a volunteer member of the LGBT advocacy group Queer Space.
Bakery owners, the McArthur family, who employ 80 staff across nine branches and deliver across the UK and Ireland, have been supported by the Christian Institute, which has paid their legal fees.
District Judge Isobel Brownlie has found the business guilty of discrimination in the landmark legal action at Belfast County Court.
The high profile legal case, which divided public opinion in Belfast and beyond, was heard over three days in March.
Judge Brownlie said she was satisfied the McArthur family had “genuine and deeply held religious beliefs” but said they must have been aware that Mr Lee was gay and were aware of the ongoing same sex marriage debate.
The judge added: “They must have known or had the perception that the plaintiff was gay.
“They must have known that the plaintiff supported gay marriage or associated with others who supported gay marriage.”
Giving evidence, Mr Lee claimed he was left feeling like a lesser person when his order, which was paid in full, was turned down two days after being initially accepted.
Karen McArthur, a founder and company director at Ashers, told the court she had accepted the request to avoid embarrassment or confrontation but, as a born-again Christian, knew she could not fulfil it.
After discussing the issue with her husband and son Daniel, she telephoned Gareth Lee and informed him the cake would not be made.
The judge told the court she believed if a heterosexual person had ordered a cake with graphics promoting “heterosexual marriage” or simply “marriage”, the order would have been fulfilled.
“I have no doubt that such a cake would have been provided. It is the word gay that the defendants took exception to,” said Judge Brownlie.
She found that Mr Lee had been treated “less favourably” contrary to the law.
The Equality Commission had initially asked for the bakery on Belfast’s Royal Avenue to acknowledge it had breached legislation and offer “modest” damages to the customer.
When Ashers refused, the publicly-funded watchdog proceeded with the legal challenge on grounds that Ashers had discriminated against the customer on grounds of sexual orientation.
The judge later added: “They were contracted on a commercial basis to bake and ice a cake.
“The plaintiff was not seeking support or endorsement.”
“The defendants have unlawfully discriminated against the plaintiff on grounds of sexual discrimination.
“This is direct discrimination for which there can be no justification.”
Speaking ahead of the judgment at Laganside court complex in Belfast, Daniel McArthur said faith had helped sustain his family through a “difficult” time.
Ashers Bakers have been ordered to pay £500 damages which Mr Lee says he will be giving to charity.