A bakery run by evangelical Christians is to launch a fresh attempt to overturn a £500 award made against it for refusing to bake a cake promoting same-sex marriage.
Ashers bakery, which has branches in Northern Ireland and is financially supported by the Christian Institute, is taking its claim to the supreme court on Tuesday, which is sitting in Belfast this week.
The firm has twice been found to have discriminated on the grounds of sexual orientation after it cancelled an order by a gay activist in 2014 for a cake decorated with the slogan: “Support gay marriage”.
Gareth Lee had specified the motto for an event to mark International Day Against Homophobia. Same-sex marriage is not legally recognised in Northern Ireland.
When Ashers refused to bake the cake, which was to have depicted the Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie, Lee sued. His case against the family-owned bakery has been supported by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.
Lee, a volunteer member of the LGBT advocacy group Queer Space, told the initial hearing in 2015 that the refusal made him “feel I’m not worthy, a lesser person and to me that was wrong”. The firm maintained it was a response to the message, not the customer.
Lee’s order occurred shortly after the Democratic Unionist party used its power of veto in the Northern Ireland assembly to block moves to make same-sex marriage legal in the province.
The region is the only part of the UK where gay marriage is still not recognised in law. Theresa May has said the issue is one for the devolved assembly at Stormont; there is no power-sharing executive.
Five supreme court justices will hear the appeal in Belfast: the president, Lady Hale, the deputy president, Lord Mance, Lord Kerr, Lord Hodge and Lady Black. This is the first week that the supreme court has sat in Northern Ireland.
The case has aroused international interest. The US supreme court is considering a similar claim from a gay couple who were refused a wedding cake by a bakery in Colorado in 2012.
Delivering judgment in the court of appeal on the Ashers case in 2016, Northern Ireland’s lord chief justice, Sir Declan Morgan, said: “The supplier may provide the particular service to all or to none but not to a selection of customers based on prohibited grounds.
“In the present case, the appellants might elect not to provide a service that involves any religious or political message. What they may not do is provide a service that only reflects their own political or religious message in relation to sexual orientation.”
At an earlier hearing in a county court, Daniel McArthur, general manager of Ashers Baking Company, explained why the family-run firm turned down Lee’s request for the cake.
“We happily serve everyone but we cannot promote a cause that goes against what the Bible says about marriage. We have tried to be guided in our actions by our Christian beliefs,” he said.
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