Forcing Christian bakers to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan could amount to cruelty, Northern Ireland’s top law officer argued today.
Attorney General John Larkin QC’s assessment came as judgment was reserved in a landmark legal battle over the McArthur family’s refusal of a customer’s order.
Senior judges in Belfast pledged to give their verdict as soon as possible.
Ashers’ Baking Company, run by the McArthurs, is seeking to overturn a finding that it acted unlawfully in declining Gareth Lee’s order.
Mr Lee had requested a cake depicting Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie below the motto “Support Gay Marriage” for an event to mark International Day Against Homophobia.
Bosses at the bakery refunded his money for the order because the message went against their Christian faith.
The family insist their problem was with the cake and not the customer.
But Mr Lee sued, claiming he was left feeling like a lesser person.
Last year, Belfast County Court held that the bakery had discriminated against him on grounds of sexual orientation and religious belief or political opinion.
The firm was also ordered to pay £500 compensation to the gay rights activist, whose legal action was backed by the Equality Commission.
During this week’s four-day hearing at the Court of Appeal, lawyers for the McArthurs challenged the finding by insisting it would have been sinful for them to complete the order.
Counsel for the family claimed it was wrong to force them to choose between operating a business or adhering to their faith.
In closing submissions today David Scoffield QC rejected claims that his clients’ refusal subjected Mr lee to direct discrimination.
He said: “The reason the order was declined was conscience, it was nothing to do with this customer or any customer’s political opinion.
“A customer with a different political opinion who wanted the same cake would have received the same response.”
Supporting the McArthurs’ case, the Attorney General has contended that it was wrong to force them to express a political view in conflict with their faith.
He insisted they should have constitutional protection for turning down a customer’s order based on their religious beliefs.
And in his final arguments today, Mr Larkin claimed the problem in the case involved “coerced expression”.
He told the court: “The wrong occurs, and can amount to cruelty, to make someone say something fundamentally at variance with their political opinion or religious views.”
Following closing submissions the three appeal judges, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan and Lord Justices Weatherup and Weir, confirmed they were reserving their decision.