Ashers Baking Company’s appeal against its £500 fine for refusing to make a pro-gay marriage cake has been adjourned, due to the intervention of the Attorney General for Northern Ireland.
As reported by The Belfast Telegraph, the Attorney General, John Larkin QC, made a last-minute request to deliver a representation on any potential clash between Northern Ireland’s equality legislation and European human rights law.
It is believed the McArthur family, who own Ashers, would base their appeal on Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which provides the right to freedom of expression.
The McArthurs were appealing after being fined by Belfast County Court for refusing to create a pro-gay marriage cake for gay rights activist Gareth Lee. Lee had requested a cake featuring Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie, often rumoured to be a gay couple, and the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’, for a private function marking International Day Against Homophobia in May 2014. Having paid in full, Ashers phoned him two days later to say they could not process the order.
After a short hearing on 3 February, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan adjourned the meeting until 9 May, when a four-day hearing will take place. Before that, however, the Court of Appeal will meet in March to hear arguments on the compatibility of Northern Ireland’s equality legislation and European human rights law, and whether there is a devolution point to be considered.
Sir Morgan told the court it was “most unfortunate” the issue had only emerged two days before the trial, and said that although efforts had been made to see if the case could proceed as planned, “it seems to us that it is simply not possible to do that without running into some risk of fairness in the hearing.”
Before the hearing, Daniel McArthur spoke outside the court and said: “Ashers does not discriminate against anyone. We took issue with the message on the cake, not the customer.
“And as a family we believe we should retain the freedom to decline business that would force us to promote a cause with which we disagree.
“As Christians we cannot simply switch off our faith as we enter the workplace in the morning.”
Lee did not speak outside the court but arrived accompanied by the Equality Commission’s chief commissioner, Dr Michael Wardlow.
Wardlow said: “Religious freedom is enshrined in the legislation. The problem is, although freedom to believe is absolute, freedom to express that belief is always limited, because if by expressing that belief you discriminate against others, then the law must intervene.
“So this is not simply about some form of religious intolerance or closing down of Christian expression, because, in all of this, the other person who has a right in this, who seems to have been forgotten, is Gareth.”
The Attorney General for Northern Ireland is the chief legal advisor in Northern Ireland for areas of criminal and civil laws which have been devolved to the region.