A Belfast court has ruled that the owners of the Ashers bakery were guilty of discrimination for refusing to bake a cake endorsing same-sex marriage.
District judge Isobel Brownlie delivered her 70-minute verdict to a packed courtroom Tuesday morning following a three-day hearing in March.
The bakery, in Newtonabbey, County Antrim, was accused of discrimination after declining the business of Gareth Lee, a gay rights activist, who had ordered a cake with the slogan "Support Gay Marriage", featuring the characters Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street.
The Northern Ireland Equality Commission took the bakery to Belfast County Court on behalf of Lee, who volunteers with Queer Space, a gay rights group. It claimed that the refusal of Lee's business by Ashers contravened the Equality Act and the Fair Employment Act.
According to the Belfast Telegraph's crime correspondent Deborah McAleese, Judge Brownlie, in her ruling, said the McArthurs are: "Christians and regular churchgoers and they seek to live at all times in accordance with the doctrines of the Bible." They therefore felt they could not promote same-sex marriage because of their Christian beliefs.
She added that the family, whose business runs to 80 branches and whose case was funded by the Christian Institute, "hold genuine deeply held religious beliefs".
However, Brownlie also said equality laws "protect people from having their sexual orientation used for having their business turned down", that "the defendants are not a religious organisation; they conduct a business for profit". She added: "As much as I acknowledge their religious beliefs, this is a business to provide service to all. The law says they must do that." Brownlie declared that, following evidence heard in court, she believed "the defendants did have the knowledge that the plaintiff was gay".
The judge concluded: "The defendants have unlawfully discriminated on the grounds of sexual orientation."
She added, "This is direct discrimination for which there is no justification."
As the McArthurs arrived in court this morning before the ruling, they told reporters, "We've been sustained throughout by the knowledge that God is faithful."
The verdict, however, went against them.
Brownlie also had to consider whether the McArthurs discriminated on the grounds of political opinion or religious belief. She said they must have been aware that Lee supported same-sex marriage, and ruled that the defendants were also guilty of discrimination on political or religious grounds, since same-sex marriage is a political cause.
According to McAleese, the judge added that even if the bakery owners had been unaware of Lee's political belief surrounding same-sex marriage, she "still would have found they treated him less favourably".
In respect of Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to freedom of religion, Brownlie said, according to McLeese, "Whilst defendants have the right to religious beliefs, they are limited as to how they manifest them." She added that this case therefore featured competing human rights as "sexual orientation is a highly protected right under ECHR as is religion".
However, Brownlie concluded, "The law in Northern Ireland prohibits the defendants from acting as they did", since such regulations "limit the manifestation of the defendants' religious beliefs" and therefore, "the defendants are entitled to hold and manifest their religious beliefs but in accordance with the law".