Christian bakers found to have discriminated against a gay man by refusing to make a cake bearing a pro-gay marriage slogan have lost their appeal against the ruling.
The owners of Belfast-based Ashers declined an order placed by gay activist Gareth Lee, claiming the message was inconsistent with their deeply held religious beliefs.
Last year, they were found to have breached equality legislation following a high-profile court case in Belfast.
The appeal was heard before three senior judges at Belfast’s Court of Appeal in May, with the reserved judgment delivered on Monday morning.
Mr Lee, a member of the LGBT advocacy group Queer Space, had wanted a cake featuring Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie with the phrase “Support Gay Marriage” for a private function marking International Day Against Homophobia.
He paid the £36.50 cost in full at Ashers’ Belfast city centre branch but was telephoned two days later and told the company could not fulfil his order.
Through the legal proceedings, Daniel McArthur, the company’s general manager, insisted Mr Lee’s sexuality was never an issue, rather the message he wanted the bakery to create.
Mr Lee claimed the episode left him feeling like a lesser person.
In the original case, District Judge Isobel Brownlie ruled that religious beliefs could not dictate the law and ordered the firm to pay damages of £500.
Ashers, a name with Biblical connotations, has six branches, employs more than 80 people and delivers across the UK and Ireland.
Throughout the legal battle they have been supported by The Christian Institute, which has organised public rallies and garnered financial backing for the case.
Mr Lee’s case was taken in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Equality Commission.
In delivering the appeal judgment, Northern Ireland’s Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan said Ashers had directly discriminated.
He rejected the argument that the bakery would be endorsing the slogan by baking the cake.
“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,” he said.
In a 30-minute ruling, Sir Declan said the original judgment had been correct in finding that “as a matter of law” Ashers had “discriminated against the respondent directly on the grounds of sexual orientation contrary to the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2006”.
The judge did however include some criticism of the NI Equality Commission.
He said the publicly funded body should also have offered the McArthur family advice during the case, as the bakers believed their rights as people of faith within the commercial sphere were being undermined.
Mr Lee was embraced and shook hands with supporters after the judges left the court.
Members of the McArthur family sat impassively on the front bench of the public gallery as the rest of the crowded court emptied.
Emerging from the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast city centre, Mr Lee made a brief statement expressing his relief.
“The only thing that I would like to say is I’m relieved and very grateful to the Court of Appeal for the judgment,” he said.
Outside court, Daniel McArthur said he was “extremely disappointed” by the ruling.
Standing with his father Colin, mother Karen and wife Amy, he said the family would be taking legal advice on whether there was a way to appeal against the judgment.
“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.
“This ruling undermines democratic freedom, it undermines religious freedom and it undermines free speech.”
Thanking all the family’s supporters, he ended his comments with a passionate declaration of his Christian faith.
“It’s been a trying time but we are thankful to God and his faithfulness to us through everything - he is still on the throne, he is the ruler of heaven and of earth and he is our God and we worship and we honour him,” he said.