Christian bakers who refused to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan subjected their customer to direct discrimination, the Court of Appeal has heard.
Senior judges were also told the McArthur family’s entitlement to express religious beliefs should not “trump” Gareth Lee’s rights.
The McArthurs were sued by Mr Lee, a gay rights activist, for declining an order he placed at their Ashers’ Bakery store in Belfast two years ago.
He 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.
In a landmark verdict last year Belfast County Court held that the bakery discriminated against Mr Lee on grounds of sexual orientation and religious belief or political opinion.
The firm was also ordered to pay him £500 compensation.
The McArthurs are now seeking to overturn the verdict, arguing that 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.
But on day three of the case, a barrister for the Equality Commission – which has backed Mr Lee – insisted the refusal left him unable to associate with a group by having a cake to celebrate their campaign.
Robin Allen QC contended: “The word gay is a statement of sexual orientation.
“They (Ashers) were objecting to the use of a particular sexual orientation in that message.
“That’s what makes it direct discrimination, because of that objection.”
A panel of three appeal judges, led by Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, were told the case involved balancing competing rights.
Mr Allen stressed the Commission recognises the importance of entitlements to freedom of religious belief under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
But he continued: “It does not follow that simply because they are important they always trump ... the balancing exercise has to be carried out.”
The barrister pointed out how the County Court had held the rights of everyone are equal under the law.
“It certainly wasn’t an easy case for the presiding judge to deal with,” he added.
“She has brought thought to it and tried to deal comprehensively with it.”
The appeal continues.