Northern Ireland’s top law officer cannot refer the case of Christian bakers found to have unlawfully refused to make a pro-gay marriage cake to the Supreme Court, senior judges have ruled.
Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan held that Attorney General John Larkin QC’s legal bid came too late.
Mr Larkin was seeking to invoke his powers to refer the verdict against Ashers’ Baking Company under identified issues of devolution.
In October the Court of Appeal upheld a finding that the McArthur family, who run the firm, directly discriminated against customer Gareth Lee due to his sexuality.
The gay rights activist sued after his order was declined at the company’s Belfast city centre shop in May 2014.
Mr Lee 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.
But Mr Lee claimed he was left feeling like a lesser person.
Last year Belfast County Court held that the bakery had unlawfully discriminated against him on grounds of sexual orientation and religious belief or political opinion.
The firm was also ordered to pay £500 compensation to Mr Lee.
Lawyers for the McArthurs appealed the ruling, arguing it would have been sinful for them to complete the order.
Mr Larkin backed the family’s case by contending that it was wrong to force them to express a political view in conflict with their faith.
But judges held that the company cannot provide a service that only reflects their own political or religious message in relation to sexual orientation.
Last week lawyers for the bakery were formally refused leave to appeal the verdict to the Supreme Court.
The decision means the McArthur family can now petition directly for a hearing in London – a move they intend to take.
A separate potential route involved Mr Larkin’s attempt to invoke his powers under the 1998 Northern Ireland Act.
He was intending to ask the Supreme Court to rule on issues related to devolution in the case.
However, Sir Declan ruled today in the Court of Appeal that the step came after the case had ended.
“We do not consider there are exceptional circumstances in this case which require us to reopen proceedings,” he said.
The court heard that the attorney general had been too late in his bid to refer four devolution issues.
The lord chief justice confirmed: “We have determined that we didn’t have the power to refer full stop.”