Northern Ireland

'Gay cake' case: Ashers bakery appeal adjourned

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Media captionDaniel McArthur, manager of Ashers bakery, said he believed the County Court "got the original ruling wrong".

An appeal by a Christian-run bakery at the centre of a discrimination case over a so-called 'gay cake' has been adjourned for three months.

It followed an intervention by Northern Ireland's Attorney General.

Last year, Ashers bakery was ordered to pay £500 for refusing to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan on it.

A Belfast court found that customer Gareth Lee had been discriminated against on the grounds of his sexual orientation.

He was backed in the case by the Northern Ireland Equality Commission, which paid almost £39,000 in legal fees.

The McArthur family, which runs Ashers, appealed the decision with financial backing from the Christian Institute.

However, on Wednesday, the case was adjourned after Attorney General John Larkin QC made a last-minute request to make representation.

His office wrote to the court setting out issues around a potential conflict between Northern Ireland's equality legislation and European human rights laws.

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Image caption In 2015, Ashers was found to have discriminated against Mr Lee on the grounds of sexual orientation

Analysis: Mark Simpson, BBC News NI reporter

Just when the complicated "gay cake" case seemed to nearing its conclusion, it has suddenly become even more complex.

A two-day appeal hearing scheduled to take place this week was supposed to bring matters to a head.

However, the last-minute postponement of the hearing - after a dramatic intervention by the Attorney General - extends the legal battle even further.

It is not clear exactly what the Attorney General hopes to achieve by his intervention.

Is he questioning the whole legal basis of the case, and potentially trying to overturn the original judgement?

Or is he merely adding an extra perspective, and making sure that the Appeal judges examine every legal angle when coming to their decision?

We will find out next month when a special hearing will take place on March 3.

It is yet another twist in a case which has provided increasing controversy, and complexity, at every turn.

At the short hearing on Wednesday, Northern Ireland's Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan described the lateness of the intervention as "most unfortunate".

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Media captionLegal Affairs expert Joshua Rosenberg said he was surprised at the decision to adjourn the appeal

Rescheduling the case for 9 May, he said: "We have all tried to see if we could proceed with the case, given the amount of work that has been done.

"It seems to us that it is simply not possible to do that without running into some risk of fairness in the hearing.

"We are not going to proceed with the hearing today."

Statement

In a statement, Ashers general manager Daniel McArthur said the Attorney General's decision to get involved showed that the case "raises matters of crucial importance".

"While the delay means it will be exactly two years to the day that the order was placed which led to the case, we are patient people and will now await the next stage in the process and remain confident that our case is right and just."

Mr McArthur had earlier repeated his statement that his firm "does not discriminate against anyone" and had objected to "the message on the cake and not the customer".

"As a family, we believe we should retain the freedom to decline business, which would force us to promote a cause with which we disagree," he said.

Christian Institute spokesman Simon Calvert said: "The court has adjourned because of important issues which are at stake.

"The Attorney General has raised new issues which we were neutral about and the court wants to hear them.

"This development clearly underlines what we have said all along - that this is a really important case."

Earlier, Equality Commission chief commissioner Dr Michael Wardlow said: "One of the things the Equality Commission does is support people when we believe they've been discriminated against, when it raises a strategic issue that allows us to challenge discriminatory practice.

"In this particular case, we believe that this happened. Judge Brownlie ruled to that effect.

"We're here today once again supporting Gareth [Lee] because that decision has been appealed, and we hope today that the three judges will agree that Judge Browlnie's judgement stands."

In 2015, Ashers was found to have discriminated against Mr Lee on the grounds of sexual orientation as well as his political beliefs.

At the time, Judge Brownlie said she accepted that Ashers had "genuine and deeply held" religious views, but said the business was not above the law.

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