A Christian baker has told of his dismay after a Government quango decided he had acted “unlawfully” and threatened court action for refusing to make a cake backing gay marriage – without even asking for his side of the story.
Daniel McArthur, the general manager of Ashers Baking Company in Newtownabbey, said that the Equality Commission had written to the firm with a “letter of claim” to demand that it come forward with “proposals to remedy your unlawful discrimination”.
But, speaking to the News Letter at the family firm’s headquarters in Ballyearl, Mr McArthur said that the Stormont quango had come to its verdict on the case without ever asking the company why it had declined the cake order.
And, contrary to what the Equality Commission claimed, Mr McArthur said that his firm had not declined the order because of the sexual orientation of the customer but rather because of the message which he wanted on the cake.
The case against Ashers, which has been trading for more than 20 years and employs 62 people, was yesterday described by the Daily Mail as the first time that anyone in the UK has been threatened with prosecution for refusing to take part in a gay rights publicity campaign.
The cake order, which was made by Gareth Lee, an activist with the gay rights group Queerspace, was placed on Friday, May 9 at the bakery’s Royal Avenue outlet in central Belfast.
He requested a cake with an image of the Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie, alongside the group’s logo and the words ‘Support gay marriage’.
Mr McArthur, whose firm is receiving legal support from national charity the Christian Institute, said: “At first, we took it the same as we would take any other cake order but it was flagged up to us and then we considered it over the weekend.
“We knew that we didn’t support gay marriage and we knew it contradicted what we believed and what the Bible taught,” he said.
“Then on the Monday, we rang the customer back and said ‘Sorry, we can’t to do as we’re Christians and it goes against our beliefs but we can give you a full refund’.”
Mr McArthur said that his mother, one of the family firm’s directors, phoned Mr Lee who then organised to send a colleague to collect the refund.
He said that the individual who came to collect the cake “reportedly said to staff ‘I’ll be speaking to solicitors about this’ so from that we took it that perhaps something could come up but hoped that nothing would happen because it just seemed like something we were entitled to do and it just seems so small a thing.”
Mr McArthur said that most cake orders go straight through to the bakery’s decorating department and that it was only if staff thought there may be “some controversial issue or something offensive” that management would be alerted.
“In this case, it was the shop manager that made us aware of it as a potential issue - they flagged it up and left it with us.”
When asked whether he knew that the customer was gay and took that into account when refusing the order, Mr McArthur said: “We never met him [Mr Lee] - I’d no idea what he was and there was certainly no indication at all made by the manager as to his sexual orientation. That wasn’t anything to do with the decision-making process.”
He added: “The reason we turned it down is because the message contradicted our beliefs. Gay marriage, to us, is not what the Bible teaches and as far as we’re concerned in our country the definition of marriage is still one man and one woman...that was the reason we turned it down.
“We’re happy to serve any customer, any type of customer that comes into us, and we’ll serve them with a smile. We’ve no issue that way.
“To me, it doesn’t seem a big thing to ask that someone can run their business according to their beliefs and to be able to refuse an order whenever it contradicts their beliefs and conscience.
“We certainly didn’t expect the Equality Commission to write to us to say we were discriminating against someone.”
Mr McArthur said he was shocked that the commission took the complaint and immediately threatened court action before first contacting the company to ask for its side of the story.
“They were simply writing to us saying that we’d discriminated against someone. There was no contact made with us. We felt very much marginalised because we were being left out of the picture.
“Without any chance to explain our decisions, they had sent us a letter saying basically that we had discriminated against this man. The Equality Commission, as of today, still haven’t tried to ascertain our side of the story.”
Mr McArthur said that the reaction from customers and suppliers had been largely positive.
He said there had been “one or two people who have rung to say they think we are discriminating but the vast majority of people have rung to say ‘we support you in what you’re doing’”.
He said that if the case goes to court the company would be “very honest and very truthful about what we have done; we’ll make known the reasons why we have done it and the beliefs that lie behind why we have done it”.
Asked about the implications for the business if the case was to go to court and a judge ruled in favour of the Equality Commission, the young businessman said: “I think it’s more important to do what God says rather than to do what man says. We would certainly continue to try to run our business but the main thing would be obeying God’s law before we would obey man’s law.”
He said that it was rare for the company to decline orders but that it had done so where requests were made for topless photos on cakes or where bad language was requested.
When asked how he thought he would have reacted if he had been in Mr Lee’s position when the order was declined, Mr McArthur said: “I think the normal decent thing to do would be to respect the company’s values or their morals, especially if they’ve offered you a full refund; to accept that as their position and to find alternative means to source your product elsewhere.”
And, asked whether the company could not have just have avoided controversy by making the cake, even if it did not agree with its message, Mr McArthur said: “It comes down to this: At the heart of what we believe is the belief that Jesus Christ is king of our whole lives.
“For us to support something which is completely against what the Bible teaches would be hypocrisy on our part. So even though it may seem such a small thing to other people, to us this is a very big thing.”