In this March 26, 2015 photo, pedestrians and customers walk by a branch of Ashers Baking Company, the bakery that refused to make a cake depicting a pro-gay marriage slogan ordered by gay rights activist Gareth Lee, in Belfast. (PAUL FAITH / AFP)
LONDON – A four-year court battle over a cake promoting gay marriage has taken an emotional toll on a Northern Irish activist at the center of the row, the equality commission said on Wednesday.
Ashers Baking Company in Belfast was found guilty of discrimination in 2015 for refusing to make a cake iced with the "Support Gay Marriage" slogan
Gay rights campaigner Gareth Lee took a bakery to court in the capital of Northern Ireland – the only part of the United Kingdom where same-sex marriage is not allowed – after it cancelled his order in 2014 for a cake with a pro-gay slogan.
Ashers Baking Company in Belfast was found guilty of discrimination in 2015 for refusing to make a cake iced with the "Support Gay Marriage" slogan, and a picture of characters Bert and Ernie from the television show Sesame Street.
After losing an appeal, based on its owners' Christian beliefs, bakery owners Daniel and Amy McArthur took the case to the London-based Supreme Court, which sat in Belfast for a two-day hearing, and concluded late Wednesday afternoon.
"We suddenly thought we won the case and now we're being told, 'No, there will be two more years of litigation'," said Michael Wardlow, who is head of Northern Ireland's Equality Commission, which funded Lee's case.
Wardlow on Wednesday said the four-year legal battle for a cake worth 36.50 pounds (US$49.70) was "wholly disproportionate" and a "heavy burden to bear for an individual".
"This (hearing) is hopefully going to settle it once and for all - that the law is there is to protect people, and this needs certainty," he said.
It mirrors another case in the United States where a baker refused to sell a cake to a gay couple for a wedding, reflecting a broader debate as to whether services can be refused to certain people.
But David Scoffield, who represented the bakery, told the Supreme Court on Tuesday that the owners had not turned away gay customers.
"They would equally have refused to provide that cake with the slogan to a heterosexual customer," said Scoffield. "Their difficulty was the content of the cake, not the characteristic of the customer."
Gay rights activist Peter Tatchell said the bakery owners had the right to their opinion, even though he disagreed with their opposition to same-sex marriage.
"Ashers did not refuse to serve him, let alone because of his sexuality. They simply refused to decorate his cake with a pro-gay message," he said in a statement.
"That is their right in a free and democratic society."
A Supreme Court judgment is expected later this year or early next.