Northern Ireland

'Gay cake' row in Northern Ireland: Q&A

A judge has ruled that a Christian-run bakery discriminated against a gay customer by refusing to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan.

Ashers Baking Company, based in County Antrim, was taken to court by a gay rights activist, assisted by Northern Ireland's Equality Commission.

As the verdict is delivered in the long-running "gay cake" dispute, BBC News NI looks at the background to the case.

What is the bakery at the centre of the case?

Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption Ashers is a Christian-owned bakery

Ashers Baking Company was founded in Newtownabbey in 1992. Run by the McArthur family, the Christian-owned business operates six shops in Northern Ireland.

The bakery came to wider prominence in July 2014 when it emerged that it had declined an order in its Belfast branch from a gay rights activist.

He had wanted them to make a cake that included a slogan that said "support gay marriage" along with a picture of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street, and the logo of the Queerspace organisation.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that has not passed a law to introduce same-sex marriage

The cake was being commissioned for a civic event in Bangor, County Down, to mark International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

Staff at the bakery passed the order to its head office, which considered it to be "at odds with our beliefs".

Another bakery agreed to accept the order.

What happened after that?

Image caption Councillor Andrew Muir cuts the replacement cake that was made by another bakery

The customer who placed the order with Ashers complained to Northern Ireland's Equality Commission, and the watchdog took up the case, warning the company that it had allegedly discriminated against the man on the grounds of his sexual orientation.

The Equality Commission said it "raises issues of public importance regarding the extent to which suppliers of goods and services can refuse service on grounds of sexual orientation, religious belief and/or political opinion".

The commission has supported the man in taking his legal case alleging discrimination.

However, Ashers said it was "taking a stand" on the grounds of religious freedom. The bakery's stance was backed by the Christian Institute, which has been providing it with legal assistance.

How did Northern Ireland's politicians react?

Image caption A Catholic delegation met DUP assembly member Paul Givan (right)

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), led by Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson, led the opposition at Stormont to the Equality Commission's case.

A DUP assembly member, Paul Givan, drafted a Private Member's Bill seeking to build a conscience clause into equality law in Northern Ireland.

This clause would allow businesses to refuse to provide some services if they clash with their strongly held religious convictions.

Mr Givan said: "Christians do not feel there is space being made for their religious beliefs".

The Catholic Church said it supported the general objective of the DUP's move.

However, opponents of the bill, led by Sinn Féin, have pledged to block the clause if it ever reaches the stage of a vote at the Stormont assembly.

Sinn Féin says it has gathered enough support for a petition of concern, a mechanism that means the bill would need cross-community support and, therefore, would not pass into law.

What about the public reaction to the case?

Image caption A rally was staged at Belfast City Hall in opposition to the DUP's conscience clause bill

Rival demonstrations have been held in support of both sides in the case.

In January, thousands of people gathered at Belfast City Hall to protest over the DUP's conscience clause bill. The crowd was addressed by politicians from Alliance, Sinn Féin and SDLP, as well as community leaders.

Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption A demonstration in support of the bakery's stance was staged at Belfast's Waterfront Hall

Two days before the court hearing in Belfast, more than 2,000 people gathered at the city's Waterfront Hall venue to show their support for Ashers. Hundreds more supporters stood outside the venue and sang hymns.

The cake was intended as a gift, but what did the recipient say?

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Media captionCouncillor Andrew Muir, the first openly gay mayor in Northern Ireland, has called for mediation to avoid the court case

Andrew Muir, Northern Ireland's first openly gay mayor, was hosting last year's event where he was presented with a replacement cake.

While he was not directly involved in the legal action, the Alliance Party councillor made an intervention on the eve of the court case to call for mediation.

"Unfortunately it's pitched people of religious belief against lesbian and gay people and I think that's very sad. It's not the type of society that I want in Northern Ireland where we have that adversarial set-up," Mr Muir said.

When the case eventually ended up in court, what happened?

Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption Gareth Lee, who placed the cake order with Ashers, said the refusal made him feel 'unworthy'

The court case in Belfast ran for three days in March.

The judgement had initially been expected to be delivered on 7 May, the same day as the general election, but it was put back for several weeks.

During the hearings, a lawyer for the bakery argued the issue was "the cake, not the customer".

One of the bakers, Karen McArthur, said she did not know Mr Lee was gay and it would not have mattered as they would not have been prepared to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan for anyone.

However, Gareth Lee said he felt he was discriminated against.

He said that after ordering the cake and paying for it, only to be told two days later that his order had been rejected: "It made me feel unworthy, a lesser person."

While the debate leading up to the hearing had been often heated, the BBC's Mark Simpson found that in the courtroom it was a different story, and there was "no heckling, shouting or jeering".

"There was respect between the legal teams, politeness from the witnesses and a respectful atmosphere inside the courtroom, including the packed public gallery," he said.

What did the court decide?

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Media captionDaniel McArthur, manager of Ashers Bakery, said they were "extremely disappointed with the judgment"

The judge found in favour of Mr Lee, saying that as a business, Ashers was not exempt from discrimination law.

District Judge Isobel Brownlie said Ashers was "conducting a business for profit", and it was not a religious group.

The firm was found to have discriminated against Mr Lee on the grounds of sexual orientation as well as his political beliefs.

The judge said she accepted that Ashers has "genuine and deeply held" religious views, but said the business was not above the law.

Damages of £500 were agreed in advance by legal teams on both sides of the dispute.

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Media captionRobin Allen QC said his client Gareth Lee was "very glad" the case was finished

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