The co-owner of Northern Ireland’s Ashers Baking Company told a court that she could not decorate a pro-gay marriage campaign cake, because she seeks to please God in the way she lives her life.
Karen McArthur, who owns and runs Ashers with her husband Colin and son Daniel, was speaking during the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland’s case against the Ashers’ business.
The case started in March in Belfast County Court, where Ms McArthur told the court: ‘The problem was with the message on the cake, because, as a Christian, I do not support gay marriage. I knew in my heart that I could not put that message on the cake’.
Last year, the Commission claimed that Ashers broke discrimination laws by turning down an order for a cake with the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’.
Also, during the case, Daniel McArthur, general manager of Ashers, told the court: ‘We believe the business is being given to us by God and how we use it is on our shoulders. We weren’t doing it in defiance of the law. Before God it’s not something we could do’.
Representing Ashers in court, David Scoffield QC said the ‘stark position of the Equality Commission is that a conscience informed by religious beliefs has no place in the commercial sphere’.
He said the tough logic of the Commission left no room for genuine disagreement, forcing individuals ‘on pain of being in court’ to produce goods promoting a cause with which they strongly disagree. This is the antithesis of democracy.
However, Michael Wardlow, head of the Commission, claimed that Christians who want to run their businesses according to their beliefs should either ‘look at the law’ or change career.
The judgement is not expected for a number of weeks.
During the court case, thousands of supporters turned up at Waterfront Hall in Belfast for the Support Ashers event.
The case has generated a lot of support among Christians across the UK. The Evangelical Alliance (EA) warned that the case in Belfast ‘threatened to banish beliefs from public life’ and that the case raised serious concerns about threats to fundamental freedoms.
Peter Lynas, director of EA in Northern Ireland, said that, in turning down the cake order, the McArthurs, who own the bakery, discriminated against an idea and not a person — which was an important distinction.
The former barrister said, ‘The question is whether everyone’s freedom of conscience, religion and belief is more important than any one person’s right not to be offended. Put another way, can you force someone to express an opinion they disagree with?
‘Equality is important and is supported by Christians. But it must be held in tension with rights and responsibilities and in the context of the much richer notions of dignity and justice. When equality becomes the sole lens through which a situation is viewed, distortions like the Ashers case can occur’.
This came as human rights QC Aidan O’Neill told the Christian Institute, which is supporting Ashers, that the equality watchdog would ‘face an avalanche of cases’ if it wins its civil action.
According to Mr O’Neill, if Ashers loses the case, then there will be no defence to similar actions being taken against other businesses — such as a Muslim printer refusing a contract requiring the printing of cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, or a gay T-shirt company declining to print a shirt with a message describing gay marriage as an ‘abomination’.