Northern Ireland news

Christian bakers Ashers may have new route of appeal to UK's highest court

Ashers bakery on Royal Avenue in Belfast. Picture by Brian Lawless, Press Association 
Staff Reporter

CHRISTIAN bakers found to have unlawfully refused to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan may have a new route of appeal to the UK's highest court, it has emerged.

Lawyers for the McArthur family had believed they were left with no further challenge to verdicts reached in the landmark civil action.

But senior judges have now raised the possibility that a section of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 could provide them with a way of getting to the Supreme Court.

Adjourning the case, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan told counsel for the McArthurs: "You need to make a decision whether you wish to pursue it."

Last month the Court of Appeal upheld a finding that the family, who run Ashers' Baking Company, directly discriminated against customer Gareth Lee due to his sexuality.

Northern Ireland Attorney General John Larkin QC was expected to seek formal approval of his intention to refer the verdict to the Supreme Court.

However, his legal move has also been put on hold following the emergence of another potential route.

Mr Lee sued after his order was declined at Ashers' Belfast city centre shop in May 2014.

The gay rights activist had requested a cake depicting Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie below the motto 'Support Gay Marriage'.

Bosses at the bakery refunded his money for the order because the message went against their Christian faith.

Last year Belfast County Court held that the bakery had unlawfully discriminated.

But during a hearing at the Court of Appeal lawyers for the McArthurs argued it would have been sinful for them to complete the order.

Mr Larkin, Northern Ireland's top law officer, backed the McArthurs' case by contending that forcing them to complete the order could amount to cruelty.

Last month, Sir Declan held that the company cannot provide a service that only reflects their own political or religious message in relation to sexual orientation.

The Lord Chief Justice, sitting with Lord Justices Weatherup and Weir, pointed out that the McArthurs had not been asked to support gay marriage.

In his ruling he said: "The fact that a baker provides a cake for a particular team or portrays witches on a Halloween cake does not indicate any support for either."

The case returned to the Court of Appeal on Tuesday following notification by the Attorney General of his intention to make a reference to the Supreme Court.

Instead, however, proceedings were adjourned to allow the family's legal team a chance to examine a potential appeal option under schedule 12 of the Northern Ireland Act.

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