Ashers Baking Company found guilty for refusing to make cake featuring gay pressure-group slogan.
A Northern Ireland bakery has been found guilty in a landmark ruling of discrimination for refusing to bake a cake with a pro-gay marriage theme.
Ashers Baking Company received worldwide support from evangelical and born-again Christians over its refusal to make the cake for a local gay rights activist in the region.
But a judge in Belfast high court on Tuesday ruled that the family-owned firm was guilty of discriminating against Gareth Lee on the grounds of sexual orientation.
District judge Isobel Brownlie acknowledged that the McArthur family, which owns Ashers, do “hold genuine deeply-held religious beliefs”.
However, she pointed out that government regulations were there “to protect people from having their sexual orientation used for having their business turned down”.
The judge added: “I believe the defendants did have the knowledge that the plaintiff was gay.”
Outlining her reasons why this was a case of discrimination, Brownlie said: “The defendants are not a religious organisation. They conduct a business for profit. As much as I acknowledge their religious beliefs, this is a business to provide service to all. The law says they must do that.”
Ashers was ordered to pay agreed damages of £500 plus court costs.
The firm was accused of discriminating on the grounds of sexual orientation against Lee, a volunteer with gay rights campaign group QueerSpace.
Lee asked Ashers in Belfast’s Royal Avenue to bake the cake last year to mark the election of the first openly gay mayor in Northern Ireland, Andrew Muir.
Lee reported the bakery to the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland after it reversed an earlier agreement to bake the cake with the pro-gay marriage message.
During the three-day court hearing in March, Lee said the decision by Ashers decision to hand back the £36.50 he had originally paid for the cake “made me feel I’m not worthy, a lesser person and to me that was wrong”.
However, Lee, through the Belfast-based gay rights lobby group, the Rainbow Project, said he would not be making any statement in relation to the judgment.
Ashers’ general manager, Daniel McArthur, said the family were extremely disappointed with the judgment. Denying they had discriminated against Lee, McArthur said: “We’ve said from the start that our issue was with the message on the cake, not the customer and we didn’t know what the sexual orientation of Mr Lee was, and it wasn’t relevant either. We’ve always been happy to serve any customers that come into our shops.
“The ruling suggests that all business owners will have to be willing to promote any cause or campaign no matter how much they disagree with it. Or as the Equality Commission has suggested, they should perhaps just close down, and that can’t be right.
“But we won’t be closing down, we certainly don’t think we’ve done anything wrong and we will be taking legal advice to consider our options for appeal.”
Responding to the guilty verdict, Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, tweeted: “Asher’s bakery judgment a good result for equality, Gay people have for far too long been discriminated against. We and the law on their side.”
McGuinness has suggested that a referendum specific to Northern Ireland be held asking the public to vote for or against gay marriage. However, Democratic Unionist party member David McIlveen also reacted on Twitter. McIlveen wrote: “Utterly sickened that a Christian-owned business has been hauled over the coals for refusing to promote something that is not legal in Northern Ireland.”
Meanwhile, the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice leader, Jim Allister, said it was “a dark day for justice and religious freedom in Northern Ireland”.
One of the main gay rights organisations in Northern Ireland, the Rainbow Project, welcomed the verdict. John O’Doherty, its director, said the judge “clearly articulated that this is direct discrimination for which there can be no justification”.
LGBT and human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has backed the legal action by Gareth Lee against the bakery. He said: “Ashers is a business serving the public, not a religious organisation. It has a legal duty to provide its services without discrimination.
“The owners cannot legitimately claim they should be above the law. If they had won this case, it would have driven a coach and horses through the equality laws; creating a legal precedent and opening the door for other people to claim the right to discriminate on religious and other grounds. It would have led to a situation where anyone could claim the right to discriminate on the basis that they disagreed with another person’s beliefs.”