Ashers ‘neither knew nor cared’ about cake customer’s sexuality

Ashers bakery on Royal Avenue in Belfast. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Ashers bakery on Royal Avenue in Belfast. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

There was no discrimination in a Christian bakery’s decision to decline an order for a cake bearing a pro-gay marriage slogan, a court has been told.

A lawyer for the family-owned Ashers bakery said the refusal had been down to the content of the cake and was not connected to any characteristic of the customer.

David Scoffield QC said: “The defendants neither knew nor cared about Mr Lee’s sexual orientation or his religious beliefs, if any, or his political opinions.

“The reason why the order was declined was because of the content and had nothing to do with a feature of the person making the order, or those with which he was associated.”

The Equality Commission is taking the legal action against Ashers bakery on behalf of the gay rights activist customer whose order was rejected.

Gareth Lee, a volunteer member of the LGBT advocacy group Queer Space, claimed he was left feeling like a lesser person when his order, which had been paid in full, was turned down.

Ashers, which is run by the McArthur family, declined the request for a cake with an image of Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie below the motto ‘Support Gay Marriage’.

Yesterday was the second day of the test case, which has split public opinion across Northern Ireland and beyond.

The Equality Commission, which monitors compliance with equality laws, had initially asked for the bakery on Belfast’s Royal Avenue to acknowledge it had breached legislation which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and offer “modest” damages to the customer.

When Ashers refused, the commission, a publicly-funded watchdog, proceeded with the legal action.

Describing the case as “complicated”, Mr Scoffield branded the legal action as a “knee-jerk” reaction.

If a heterosexual person had requested the same cake bearing the same message they too would have been refused, the barrister told Belfast County Court.

Mr Scoffield added: “It was the content of the cake, not the characteristic of the customer or anyone associated with him. There was no discrimination in this case.”

The case, which has made headlines worldwide, is being heard by district judge Isobel Brownlie.

Earlier Karen McArthur, a director of the baking firm who took the cake order, acknowledged that she had always known she could not proceed with the request because of her opposition to same-sex marriage.

Mrs McArthur, who has run the bakery with her husband Colin for more than 20 years, said: “I knew in my heart that I could not put that message on the cake.”

Mrs McArthur revealed that she had been a born-again Christian from the age of seven and had always tried to “please God” with the way she lived her life.

The order was taken to avoid a confrontation and to save embarrassment by having a confrontation in the shop, she claimed.

Mr Lee was later contacted by telephone and told apologetically that Ashers could not make the cake.

“I did not want to embarrass him or have a confrontation in the bakery,” Mrs McArthur told the court.

Co-owner Colin McArthur was also called to give evidence and described how he had agonised over the moral dilemma but a family decision was made to refuse.

“As far as I can recollect, either on the Saturday or Sunday [around two days after the initial order] we were both of the same opinion, my wife and myself, that we could not proceed and make the cake.”

The court was told that Daniel McArthur, the eldest of three boys, was appointed general manager at his parents’ company two years ago.

Mr McArthur said the family had not taken legal advice but he had telephoned a church elder to “ask his thoughts” on the matter.

“We were not doing it in defiance of the law,” added Mr McArthur.

“I think it is quite obvious that we do not know a lot of the ins and outs of the law...Before God, this is something we couldn’t make.”

Main Ashers news story with links to other Ashers stories