A long-running case brought by Northern Ireland’s taxpayer-funded Equality Commission against a family-owned bakery fined for refusing to violate Christian beliefs of the owners by promoting homosexuality has reached the U.K. Supreme Court.
The Christian Institute, which has represented the family that owns Ashers Baking Co., announced Wednesday that the U.K. Supreme Court will consider a possible appeal by the Belfast-based bakers regarding their refusal to bake a cake bearing the campaign slogan “Support Gay Marriage.”
The company is owned by the McArthur family, which, the institute said,”has been dragged through the courts in Northern Ireland for more than two years by the country’s state-funded equality watchdog, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.”
After incurring an estimated £200,000 in legal bills, about $260,000, Ashers was ordered to pay £500 damages (about $650) to “gay” activist Gareth Lee, whose demand that the baker owners violate their faith by promoting homosexuality had been refused.
It was last December that the Court of Appeal in Belfast, which had “rubber-stamped” a lower’s court’s decision demanding the bakery promote homosexuality, opened the door for the action with the statement from Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, “We consider the matter should be properly left to the Supreme Court.”
The institute said the hearing will be over two days in October.
Daniel McArthur, the general manager, told the institute the Supreme Court’s willingness to hear arguments “is very encouraging and reflects the importance of the issues and the high-profile nature of the case.”
The Christian Institute has funded the bakery’s legal defense.
Spokesman Simon Calvert said: “This is a very important development. The Supreme Court does not consider every case which is brought to its attention and our legal team has already started to prepare for the crucial hearings which lie ahead.”
He explained the process has the court holding one hearing on initial arguments, from which judges “will then determine if they are to grant a full appeal hearing.”
“If the judges agree to the appeal it will take place immediately during the two days set aside for the case to be discussed,” he said.
He warned that the existing court precedent “undermines democratic freedom.”
“It undermines religious freedom. It undermines free speech.”
The institute said John Larkin, the attorney general for Northern Ireland, will be making arguments in the case.
He was the official who told judges at the lower court that if the county court ruling against Ashers was right, the laws used against the bakery run violate Northern Ireland’s constitutional law, which assures freedom of speech and religion.
He said at the time, “I say very clearly, if it was a case where Mr. Lee had been refused some of Ashers excellent chocolate eclairs because he was gay or perceived to be gay I would be standing on the other side of the court.
“But it’s not about that, it’s about expression and whether it’s lawful under Northern Ireland constitutional law for Ashers to be forced … to articulate or express or say a political message which is at variance with their political views and in particular their religious views.”
It was his perspective that prompted the lower court to hold a special hearing on his concerns, even though the judges later ignored them.
Meanwhile, the Christian Post reported the case actually has benefited the bakery financially.
The report said the company saw a rise in profits and hit almost $2 million in 2016.
WND reported last year when Morgan and two other justices said bakery owners must put messages on their cakes when customers demand them even if the words violate the bakery owners’ conscience and faith.
Morgan and the two other judges affirmed a decision from Isobel Brownlie, a county court judge, ruling against the bakery in favor of Lee, who demanded the Christians provide him with a cake stating “Support Gay Marriage.”
According to a report from the institute, while the judges recognized that the bakery did not refuse service because of Lee’s homosexuality, they said the refusal to create his message was “direct discrimination.”
The judges said the bakery may not provide a service “that only reflects their own political or religious message.”
McArthur said the case was only about the free speech rights of the bakery’s owners.
“We had served Mr. Lee before and would be happy to serve him again. The judges accepted that we did not know Mr. Lee was gay and that was not the reason we declined the order. 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.”
Calvert speculated at the time: “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.”
Larkin also had warned the lower courts the European Convention on Human Rights was being violated by the local regulation.
“Much as I wish to defend the gay community, I also want to defend freedom of conscience, expression and religion,” he wrote.
“It pains me to say this, as a long-time supporter of the struggle for LGBT equality in Northern Ireland, where same-sex marriage and gay blood donors remain banned. The equality laws are intended to protect people against discrimination. A business providing a public service has a legal duty to do so without discrimination based on race, gender, faith and sexuality.
“However, the court erred by ruling that [Gareth] Lee was discriminated against because of his sexual orientation and political opinions. … His cake request was refused not because he was gay, but because of the message he asked for. There is no evidence that his sexuality was the reason Ashers declined his order,” he wrote.