Christian bakers found guilty of discrimination for refusing to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan could not commit a sin by going against their deeply held consciences, their lawyer has told an appeal hearing.
The McArthur family, who run Ashers Baking Company in Belfast, are seeking to overturn a judgment which found they acted unlawfully by declining the order placed by LGBT activist Gareth Lee in 2014.
The business has insisted the case has implications for freedom of expression across the UK.
Barrister David Scoffield QC said: “They could not in conscience provide a product with a message that was inconsistent with their deeply held religious beliefs in circumstances where the evidence was clear that they believed that to do so would be sinful.”
He said they were not contractually obliged to provide the cake.
“This was not a refusal to sell a cake, it was about the refusal to sell this particular cake.”
He told the appeal court of three senior judges the crucial question was why the order was not fulfilled.
“This case is an important case. It raises, we submit, an issue of principle.
“The issue is the extent to which those who hold such religious convictions can be required by the law to act in a manner inconsistent with their convictions.”
He said it had wider implications.
“It makes it extremely difficult for any business such as a printer or someone who, as we have seen in this case, creates T-shirts or creates cakes, to run any kind of bespoke service if faced with the position that someone could come through your door and order something which is clearly objectionable.”
The high-profile case was heard at Belfast County Court over three days last March.
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 in full at Ashers’ Belfast city centre branch but received a phone call two days later and was told the company could not fulfil his order.
In evidence, Ashers’ owner Karen McArthur said, as a born-again Christian, she knew in her heart she could not make the cake but had taken the order to avoid a confrontation in the shop.
Daniel McArthur also told the court his family could not compromise their religious beliefs, despite the legal ramifications.
Mr Lee claimed he was left feeling like a lesser person.
Delivering her findings, District Judge Isobel Brownlie said the bakers had breached equality legislation and directly discriminated against Mr Lee, contrary to the law.
Ordering Ashers to pay agreed damages of £500, the judge said religious beliefs could not dictate the law.