Ashers manager: 'We don't think we've done anything wrong'
The family at the heart of the Ashers Bakery case have spoken of their disappointment at the outcome of the case brought against it by a gay rights activist.
Earlier today, Judge Isobel Brownlie said the bakery had discriminated against Gareth Lee when it refused to fulfil an order for a cake with a slogan in support of gay marriage.
General manager Daniel McArthur said: "We're extremely disappointed with the judgment. We've said from the start that our issue was with the message on the cake, not the customer and we didn't know what the sexual orientation of Mr Lee was, and it wasn't relevant either. We've always been happy to serve any customers that come into our shops.
"The ruling suggests that all business owners will have to be willing to promote any cause or campaign no matter how much they disagree with it. Or as the Equality Commission has suggested, they should perhaps just close down, and that can't be right.
"But we won't be closing down, we certainly don't think we've done anything wrong and we will be taking legal advice to consider our options for appeal."
He added: "We have learned a lot and been contacted by Christians from all over the world and that has been a very rewarding bonus from this experience.
"The fact is that because of the case we have had more opportunities to talk about our Christian faith and the Lord Jesus Christ and for that we can be very thankful to God.
"The loss of the case and the possibility of a financial penalty is disappointing but that is a small burden to bear as the case has provided us with an opportunity through which we have been able to speak about our faith and our beliefs. And for that we give thanks to the Lord."
Ashers was supported by The Christian Institute, which funded its defence.
The Institute's deputy director Simon Calvert said: "We are extremely disappointed at today's ruling against the McArthur family and Ashers Baking Company. It will also sadden all those who value freedom of conscience and freedom of speech.
"The judge decided that the McArthur family knew Gareth Lee was gay, but it has always been clear that the reason for declining the order was the message – not the customer. Ashers did not know the sexual orientation of Mr Lee and it is not relevant. The company is, and has always been, happy to serve everyone.
"Judge Brownlie recognised that there were competing rights in this case but has favoured sexual orientation over religious belief."
He added: "It appears that we are all now required by law to support same-sex marriage. What next? Will the Muslim printer now be obliged to print cartoons of Mohammed? Will the lesbian T-shirt printer now be forced to print T-shirts promoting traditional marriage? We should all consider the real concern and confusion that will result from this ruling."
McArthur, who was accompanied by his wife Amy at the three day court hearing in March and again today as the judgment was read out, thanked the Christian Institute and their legal team. He said: "Like so many others we just want to live and work in accordance with our religious beliefs. We know we took the right decision before God and we have no regrets about what we've done. God calls us to be faithful Christians, not only when things are going well but when people oppose us."
He added: "We do want to say thank you to the thousands of people who have supported and prayed for us, we're very grateful and certainly your prayers would be much appreciated as we move forward."
Peter Lynas, a former barrister and Northern Ireland director of Evangelical Alliance, said: "This judgment will cause great concern for all those in business. It turns out the customer is always right and businesses have no discretion in deciding which goods and services to produce. The law rightly protects people from discrimination, but it has now extended that protection to ideas.
"While it's absolutely vital to keep this case in perspective, this ruling will come as a shock to the vast majority of people who, polling shows, supported Ashers. While the case will hopefully be appealed, that will lead to a prolonged period of uncertainty and nervousness among business owners. It will no doubt lead to further calls to change the law."
He added: "It seems that religion has been effectively banished from the commercial sphere. Even the right to freedom of religion under the European Convention of Human Rights could not save the McArthurs."