Northern Ireland’s Attorney General has been given the green light to become involved in a Christian-run bakery’s appeal against being found to have discriminated against a gay customer.
Senior judges in Belfast today issued notices of devolution following legal arguments from John Larkin QC about the lawfulness of legislation at the centre of the case.
They decided he had raised an arguable case that sexual orientations regulations in Northern Ireland directly discriminate against those who hold religious beliefs or political opinions.
The move gives Mr Larkin authorisation to make representations when Ashers’ Baking Company seeks to overturn the verdict against them at a full hearing in May.
Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan said: “We are satisfied that there is an issue about whether or not the relevant statutes give rise to direct discrimination issues which is more than frivolous and vexatious.”
The bakery, run by the McArthur family, is appealing the outcome of legal action over its refusal to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan.
Last year, Belfast County Court held that it had discriminated against customer Gareth Lee on grounds of sexual orientation and political beliefs.
The company was ordered to pay £500 in damages to the gay rights activist.
Backed by the Equality Commission, Mr Lee sued the Co Antrim-based firm after it refused an order placed at its Belfast city centre shop in May 2014.
He was seeking 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 because the message went against their Christian faith.
During the original trial Ashers’ representatives insisted the problem was the cake, not the customer.
But Mr Lee claimed he was left feeling like a lesser person when his order was turned down.
Although the County Court judge accepted Ashers was entitled to have “genuine and deeply-held” religious views, she said the business was not above the law.
Her ruling is now to be examined by the Court of Appeal.
It will determine whether the judge was correct in law to hold that Ashers discriminated against Mr Lee on grounds of sexual orientation and religious belief or political opinion.
Lawyers for the McArthurs are also expected to argue that they had protection under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Their planned appeal was dramatically stalled last month following the Attorney General’s last-minute intervention.
In court today he argued there was a theological context to the interpretation of the sexual orientation regulations in the case.
“The issue of political and religious discrimination is direct,” he contended.
Mr Larkin also claimed the ramifications were “potentially enormous”.
Counsel for Mr Lee, who was present in court for the hearing, countered that the legislation was neutral on the issue.
Robin Allen QC told the judges: “It simply does not say this applies or gives prior rights to a particular religious group, or lesser rights to a particular religious group.”
The barrister also confirmed a key point he will maintain at the full appeal hearing.
“What was decided was that a sphere of commercial activity, not all commercial activity but nearly all, should be a religion-free and political opinion-free zone,” he added.
However, Sir Declan, sitting with Lord Justices Weatherup and Weir, decided to issue devolution notices on the sexual orientations regulations and also a Fair Employment and Treatment Order.
It means the Attorney General can make further submissions on compatibility with constitutional law when the main appeal gets underway on May 9.