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News: UK

Fri 28 Oct, 2016
By Robert Ingham

this was direct discrimination

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The Christian owners of a Northern Ireland bakery have lost their appeal against a ruling that their refusal to make a "gay cake" was discriminatory.

Appeal court judges said that, under law, the bakers were not allowed to provide a service only to people who agreed with their religious beliefs.

Two years ago, the family-run firm refused to make a cake iced with the slogan: "Support Gay Marriage".

The order was placed at its Belfast shop by gay rights activist Gareth Lee.

The firm argued that the cake's message was against the bakers' religious views.

Reacting to the ruling, Daniel McArthur from Ashers said he was "extremely disappointed" adding that it undermined "democratic freedom, religious freedom and free speech".

"If equality law means people can be punished for politely refusing to support other people's causes then equality law needs to change," he said.

"We had served Mr Lee before and we would be happy to serve him again.

"The judges accepted that we did not know that Mr Lee was gay and that he was not the reason we declined the order.

"We have always said it was not about the customer, it was about the message."

In their ruling, they 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."

The judges also said that Ashers would not have objected to a cake carrying the message: "Support Heterosexual Marriage" or indeed "Support Marriage".

"We accept that it was the use of the word 'gay' in the context of the message which prevented the order from being fulfilled," they said.

"The reason that the order was cancelled was that the appellants would not provide a cake with a message supporting a right to marry for those of a particular sexual orientation.

"This was a case of association with the gay and bisexual community and the protected personal characteristic was the sexual orientation of that community.
"Accordingly this was direct discrimination."

The judges said that in the course of the hearing, concern was expressed about the role of the Equality Commission in the pursuit of the case.

They said that they had been assured that the commission was available to give advice and assistance to those such as the appellants "who may find themselves in difficulties as a result of their deeply held religious beliefs".

"The only correspondence to the appellants that we have seen, however, did not include any offer of such assistance and may have created the impression that the commission was not interested in assisting the faith community where issues of this sort arose," they added.

The judges said it "should not have been beyond the capacity of the commission to provide or arrange for the provision of advice to the appellants at an earlier stage and we would hope that such a course would be followed if a situation such as this were to arise in future".

Speaking publicly for the first time about the case, Mr Lee said he was both "relieved" and "grateful to the appeal court judges."

Michael Wardlow, from the Equality Commission, said the appeal court ruling against Ashers bakery was extremely significant and clarified the law.

"The judgement today was very clear. It said unequivocally, faith is important, but faith cannot set aside equality legislation that has been long fought," he said.

The appeal court upheld the original court's decision that Ashers in County Antrim discriminated against Mr Lee.

At that time, the judge said she accepted that Ashers had "genuine and deeply held" religious views, but said the business was not above the law.

The family's appeal was heard in May, but the judgement was reserved.

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