A Christian baker found to have discriminated against a gay man by refusing to ice a cake with a slogan supporting same-sex marriage has said the ruling “undermines democratic and religious freedom”.
The owners of Belfast-based Ashers declined an order placed by gay activist Gareth Lee, claiming the message was inconsistent with their deeply held religious beliefs.
Last year, they were found to have breached equality legislation following a high-profile court case in Belfast.
This morning, the discrimination ruling was upheld by the Court of Appeal.
Daniel McArthur, who owns and runs the Ashers Baking Company with his wife Amy, said the family was “extremely disappointed” with today’s ruling.
He added: “If equality law means people can be punished for politely refusing to support other people’s causes, then equality law needs to change.
“This ruling undermines democratic freedom. It undermines religious freedom. It undermines free speech.
“We have always said it was never about the customer, it was about the message. The court accepted that. But now we are being told we have to promote the message even though it’s against our conscience.
“What we refused to do, was to be involved with promoting a political campaign to change marriage law.
“Because we’re Christians we support the current law. And we felt that making this cake would have made us responsible for its message.”
Mr McArthur said the family will now take advice from their lawyers on how to proceed.
He added: “In the meantime, other businesses will have to take advice about whether they can refuse orders that conflict with their consciences. Or whether they too may be coerced into promoting other people’s views.”
The Christian Institute, which backed the McArthur’s case, claimed equality laws have been turned into an “oppressive weapon used to curb dissent”.
The Institute’s deputy director for public affairs, Simon Calvert said: “Equality laws are there to protect people from discrimination, not to force people to associate themselves with a cause they oppose.
“But those same laws have become a weapon in the hands of those who want to oppress anyone who dissents from the politically-correct norms of the moment. The law needs to change before more damage is done.
“The only reason Ashers Baking Company turned this order down is because to do otherwise, would be to involve themselves and their company in endorsing a highly political and controversial campaign to redefine marriage. This is something that as Bible-believing Christians, they simply could not do.
“What about the Muslim printer asked to produce cartoons of Mohammed? Or the Roman Catholic company asked to produce adverts with the slogan ‘Support abortion’?
“Any company whose owners believe that their creative output says something about them and their values has been put at risk by this interpretation of the law.
“We’ll work with the family and their lawyers to see what options for appeal remain open. “
Peter Lynas, former barrister and director of the Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland said the McArthur family have been dragged through the courts for standing up for their beliefs.
He added: “This is a sad day for the family and for freedom of conscience and religion. Ashers have lost the case, but even more importantly we have all lost some our freedom. Forcing someone to promote a view that they fundamentally disagree with is the antithesis of a free and fair society.”
“This case shows how far the state can go in forcing someone to act against their fundamental beliefs. We will have to wait and see if there will be further appeals to the Supreme Court.
“We will also have to review whether the current law is fit for purpose given how it has been interpreted. It now appears not just to protect people, but also particular public messages.”
TUV leader Jim Allister described the ruling as “a black day for justice and religious liberty”.
“This is an assault on freedom of conscience and as such it should worry Christians and non-Christians alike,” the North Antrim MLA added.
“The aggressive ‘gay rights’ lobby will see this as the green light to demand that everyone not only accepts but celebrates their lifestyle. I trust that every appeal opportunity will be taken”.
However, Sinn Féin MLA Sean Lynch said the ruling was a “victory for common sense and equality”.
The party’s equality spokesperson said: “The original decision was the correct one and I’m glad it has been upheld. This is the right decision and represents another step forward for equality.
“Equality must be paramount and all forms of discrimination must be challenged.”
The Rainbow Project, Northern Ireland’s largest LGBT support organisation also welcomed the judgment of the Court of Appeal.
John O’Doherty, director of The Rainbow Project said: “Ashers Baking Company entered into a contractual agreement to make this cake and then changed their mind. While sympathetic as some may be to the position in which the company finds itself; this does not change the facts of the case. The judgement clearly articulated that this is direct discrimination for which there can be no justification.
‘We once again extend the hand of friendship to all people of faith, churches and families. We would encourage faith leaders to engage with our community to ensure better relations and to develop trust and respect between our overlapping communities for the betterment of our society.”