The Equality Commission only agreed to drop its legal action against Ashers bakery if there was “complete capitulation” on its part, the bakery’s QC told the court.
The court case has been taken by Gareth Lee, the man who ordered the cake, but is being funded by the Equality Commission, which is supporting his claim for £500 damages over alleged discrimination based on his sexual orientation.
First Minister Peter Robinson, who has condemned the quango — which gets its budget from his department — last week told the Assembly that it had set aside more than £30,000 to fund the legal action.
David Scoffield QC for the bakery countered any suggestion that the commission offered an “olive branch” of alternative resolution to the case. Letters sent by the body expressing a preference for avoiding a court hearing were couched in terms that the defendants were not to repeat their actions, the barrister claimed.
He told Judge Isobel Brownlie: “There was no serious attempt really to avoid the need for litigation because the only basis that could happen, the commission has made clear, was by complete capitulation by the defendants.”
Mr Scoffield opened the defence by arguing that no discrimination of Mr Lee had occurred. But, even if the court rules otherwise, he contended, any such finding would be incompatible with his client’s human rights.
Challenging the plaintiff’s assertion that conscience based on religious beliefs has no place in the commercial sphere, he claimed the logic of that argument is that goods and services must be provided irrespective of how offensive they may be to the trader’s convictions.
The public gallery was almost packed to capacity with Christian campaigners as well as gay rights activists.
Throughout the hearing Karen McArthur clutched her husband’s arm as they sat beside their son Daniel and his wife Amy.
On the other side of the large dock, normally used to hold criminals facing trial, Mr Lee sat listening intently, supported by male and female friends.