Leading article

Difficult issues may follow cake case

The Belfast county court case which resulted yesterday in the Ashers baking company being found guilty of discrimination attracted international attention and clearly has major implications.

There will be mixed feelings about the verdict, as, while members of the gay community fully deserve to have their rights respected, there is every prospect that further legal actions involving even more difficult issues may follow over what could be a prolonged period.

The saga began last year when gay rights activist Gareth Lee attempted to purchase a specially designed cake from a Belfast city centre branch of the bakery which was intended to feature an image of the Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie and the message Support Gay Marriage.

Ashers initially accepted the order, but, after it was referred to the company's head office, the directors decided that it was against their beliefs and the payment made by Mr Lee was refunded.

The battle line were then drawn for the high-profile case in which Mr Lee was backed by the Northern Ireland Equality Commission and the bakery was supported by the Christian Institute.

After a three-day hearing last March, district judge Isobel Brownlie yesterday released a detailed 41-page judgment in which she ruled that Ashers had unlawfully discriminated against Mr Lee.

Nominal damages of £500 had been agreed in advance by both legal teams, but what was much more important was the conclusion that Ashers was a business rather than a religious group and could not be regarded as above the law.

The judge explained the legislation and spelt out her decision in such comprehensive terms that Ashers will face a long and complex road if, as has been speculated, an appeal is under serious consideration.

However, the position of the person who was actually intended to receive the now famous cake as a gift, Northern Ireland's first openly gay mayor, Andrew Muir, deserves to be carefully noted.

Mr Muir, an Alliance councillor in North Down, said it would have been preferable if mediation between the two sides, even if it had been left to a late stage, had avoided any need for a judicial hearing.

He said that an adversarial approach, which pitched people of religious belief against the gay community, was very sad, and did not reflect the kind of society he wanted to see in Northern Ireland.

Mr Muir's assessment was entirely reasonable, and it should be accepted that patient dialogue, no matter how long it takes, is always the best way to address sincerely held differences of opinion.

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