A bakery in Northern Ireland which declined to bake a cake in support of same-sex marriage has been found guilty of discrimination in a landmark case on Tuesday.
According to Adam Withnall of the Independent, the Ashers Baking Company argued that the cake and its slogan "Support Gay Marriage" went against their Christian beliefs. District judge Isobel Brownie issued her ruling at Belfast County Court.
"The defendants have unlawfully discriminated against the plaintiff on grounds of sexual discrimination," Brownie said. "This is direct discrimination for which there can be no justification."
A report from the BBC noted that both parties agreed in advance of damages of £500 (about $776). The judge also concluded that the bakers were not a religious group but instead "conducting a business for profit."
According to David Blevins of Sky News, Gareth Lee, who works for the campaign group Queerspace, wanted Asher's Bakery to ice the cake with the group's logo alongside Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie. Although the bakery initially accepted the request, it later turned down Lee's order because "it was at odds with our beliefs and with what the Bible teaches."
"We weren't doing in defiance of the law," general manager Daniel McArthur said. "We don't know the ins and outs of the law. Our Christian faith is the utmost importance to us."
Blevins reported that although the United Kingdom has approved same-sex marriage, Northern Ireland is the only part of the country where the practice remained illegal; that position was reinforced by a vote in the Assembly last month. The McArthur family, who also own the bakery, told the judge that they "could not stand before God" and produces a cake favoring same-sex marriage.
"I wasn't worthy of service because they were Christian. That was the message that struck me," Lee said. "It made me feel not worthy, like I'm a lesser person and to me that is wrong."
According to Sky News, Northern Ireland's publicly funded Equality Commission brought a civil action against the bakery, claiming that it discriminated on the grounds of sexual orientation. However, thousands of people have showed their support for the bakery in the form of attending public meetings and donations to a major fundraising campaign backed by the lobby group Christian Institute.
"Asher's Baking Company, named after 'bread from Asher' in a verse from the Bible, was founded in 1992, has six branches and employs 60 people," Blevins wrote.
McArthur, 25, elaborated to Henry McDonald of the Guardian on the importance of the family's Christian beliefs.
"Our faith is very important to us," McArthur said. "It determines how we live, how we bring up our children, how we run our business, how we meet and how we engage with other people in society, so yes, we can't leave it out whenever we go to work in the morning."
McArthur added that "God has been faithful to us" despite the events being "a difficult and exhausting time for us as a family."
"He has given us the strength to deal with this, and we know and trust in him that going forward he will continue to give us his strength," McArthur said.
McDonald explained how the outcome of the case would affect various conflicting rights.
"If the judge rules in favor of Lee, the controversy - which has profound implications for a conflicting set of rights: the right of the LGBT community not to be discriminated versus the right of Christians and people of other faiths to exercise their personal conscience in all walks of life including business - is set to continue," McDonald wrote.
According to the Guardian, the largest party in the power-sharing Northern Ireland government, the Democratic Unionist party, has proposed a "freedom of conscience" bill, which would allow firms the right to refuse business transactions that they believed run counter to their religious convictions. However, the Sinn Fein party has vowed to block any such law from passing in the Stormont assembly.
"Under the complex rules of the regional parliament, parties from either side of the sectarian divide can veto certain bills if they believe such legislation does not command cross-community support," McDonald wrote.
McDonald reported that Northern Ireland's ban on gay marriage could be subject to legal challenges. Opponents have argued that such a ban contradicts the European convention on human rights.