A Christian bakery in Northern Ireland was found guilty of discrimination on Tuesday because it refused to bake a cake with an image of Sesame Street puppets, Bert and Ernie, with a slogan "Support Gay Marriage" last year. The Ashers Baking Company had canceled the order placed by gay rights activist Gareth Lee last May for a private function on the International Day Against Homophobia.
Belfast County Court's Judge Isobel Brownlie said Tuesday, according to the Associated Press (AP), that the bakery was not a religious organization and therefore, had no legal basis to deny the order based on a customer’s sexual orientation. Brownlie also ordered the bakery to pay Lee 500 pounds ($775) and legal costs, which have totaled up to tens of thousands. The case was brought on Lee's behalf by the Northern Ireland Equality Commission, which oversees the compliance to anti-discrimination laws in the region.
"The defendants are not a religious organization. They conduct a business for profit. I believe the defendants did have the knowledge that the plaintiff was gay,” Brownlie said, according to the Belfast Telegraph, adding: "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 said, according to the AP, that the cancelation of the order was an instance of "direct discrimination for which there can be no justification," adding: “I have no doubt that such a cake would have been provided. It is the word 'gay' that the defendants took exception to."
Lee had said, according to the Mirror, that he felt like a lesser person when his order was refused two days after it was accepted by Ashers bakery. Karen McArthur, a founder and director at the company, had reportedly said that she had accepted the order initially because she did not want to be embarrassed or confronted. However, because she was born a Christian, she could not deliver the cake and canceled the order.
The lawyers now have seven days to raise any issues with the ruling. Ashers employs about 80 people in Britain and Ireland and received funding to fight the case from the Christian Institute, a charity organization, Agence France-Presse reported.
While the judgment was applauded by activists supporting gay rights, Christian fundamentalists in the region, where majority of the people oppose gay marriages, denounced the move.
Local politician Paul Givan, who believes that businesses should have the right to refuse customers on occasions where their religious beliefs are compromised, denounced the judgment, and said that the Equality Commission should apologize for bringing up the case.
"This is an assault on faith,” Givan said, according to the Belfast Telegraph, adding: "Are Christians going to be dragged through the courts? I don't believe the people of Northern Ireland want that.
"The Equality Commission should apologize. I hope this case will be appealed."