When as a schoolboy I started a Saturday job in Ashers Baking Company, I never imagined that I would be reporting on a bizarre — yet landmark — legal action against the firm.
Over about seven years, I worked in the decorating room at the Newtownabbey bakery, making and decorating pastries alongside more skilled colleagues who decorated the sort of celebration cake which has now put the company on the front line of the so-called culture war between Christians and an increasingly secular society.
Although I knew that the owners were devout Christians and there was a large Biblical sign at the bakery headquarters in Ballyearl, the firm seemed fairly unremarkable in most respects — no better or worse than scores of medium-sized family-run businesses across the Province.
On the far side of Court 12 yesterday, at the top of Belfast’s modern Laganside court complex, the McArthur family who founded and own the bakery sat in a line together — Colin and Karen, their son Daniel and his wife Amy.
About 30 feet away sat Gareth Lee, the gay man whose order they cancelled and who has instigated the case, alongside friends and lawyers.
For a civil action — particularly one where the sum of compensation being claimed is just £500 — there was an unusually heavy police presence.
Eight PSNI officers were outside the courtroom before the case began, and police were in the public gallery for virtually the entire case, an apparent indication that the heated debate which the case has provoked could erupt into either violence or some form of protest.
In the event, supporters of both the complainant and the defendants were impeccably behaved throughout.
And as more of the case was revealed, both parties appeared reasonable in much of how they have dealt with each other — though not to the point that either was prepared to concede what each views as a point of principle and negotiate a compromise resolution.
The McArthurs have repeatedly put across their views — in slickly-produced videos filmed by the Christian Institute, at public meetings and in interviews with this newspaper and the Daily Mail.
But until yesterday we had heard nothing from Mr Lee.
When he did speak late in the day during yesterday’s hearing, Mr Lee did not quite fit the stereotype which some of the bakery’s supporters have suggested of a crusading gay rights activist out to target a Christian business. Actually, Mr Lee often appeared to go out of his way to praise many aspects of how Karen McArthur had dealt with him.
He said that she had been “professional” when he placed the order, acknowledged that she may not have seen the ‘Support gay marriage’ slogan when he had done so, and stated that she had been so apologetic when she phoned to cancel the order that he was “anxious” for her and understood how difficult she must have found the call.
But Mr Lee repeatedly expressed his disbelief that a bakery of which he had been a customer would cancel his order on religious grounds.
Yesterday was almost exclusively Mr Lee’s side of the case and today will see Ashers’ QC, David Scoffield, set out their defence in detail.
During arguments from Mr Lee’s QC, Robin Allen, some previously unknown details of the case, which could be significant, emerged, such as the revelation that Ashers’ promotional material for its cake service featured a Halloween cake with a witch on it. That, said Mr Allen, gave no indication to his client that he was ordering from a Christian firm.
At several points yesterday reference was made to possible legislative attempts to change equality law to allow, in the words of Ashers’ supporters, for a “reasonable accommodation” between differing views in cases such as this.
That almost did not need to be said, for, at various points throughout the day’s hearing, senior political figures, including Edwin Poots, Jim Allister and Stephen Moutray, were in the public gallery — all of whom are firm supporters of Paul Givan’s ‘conscience clause’ bill.
It was also mentioned during legal arguments that Attorney General John Larkin had written to the judge raising questions about the case.
For a dispute over a £36.50 cake, a lot of people are watching this case very closely.