Ashers Bakery refused to make a cake with an image of Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie and the phrase, 'Support gay marriage'

A judge has ruled that a Christian-owned bakery in Northern Ireland discriminated against a customer after it refused to make a cake bearing a pro-gay marriage slogan.

The Northern Ireland Equality Commission brought the case against Ashers Baking Company, which is based in Co Antrim, on behalf of Gareth Lee, whose order was declined.

District judge Isobel Brownlie delivered the guilty verdict at Belfast County Court earlier today.

“The defendants have unlawfully discriminated against the plaintiff on grounds of sexual discrimination,” she said.

“This is direct discrimination for which there can be no justification.”

The judge said Ashers was not exempt from discrimination law because they were “conducting a business for profit” and are not a religious group.

She added that she accepted that Ashers have “genuine and deeply held” religious views, but that they were not above the law.

Gareth Lee, who brought the case (PA)

Gareth Lee, who brought the case (PA)

“The defendants are not a religious organisation. They conduct a business for profit. I believe the defendants did have the knowledge that the plaintiff was gay,” Judge Brownlie said.

“As much as I acknowledge their religious beliefs this is a business to provide service to all. The law says they must do that.”

Both parties have agreed that £500 of damages are to be awarded to Mr Lee.

Ashers Bakery, run by the McArthur family, was accused of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation after it refused to make a cake carrying an image of Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie below the phrase ‘Support Gay Marriage’.

Mr Lee had ordered the cake for an event marking International Day Against Homophobia last May.

Ashers, which employ 80 staff across nine branches, have had their legal fees paid by the Christian Institute.

Speaking outside court on Tuesday morning before the ruling was announced, Ashers general manager Daniel McArthur said: “We happily serve everyone but we cannot promote a cause that goes against what the Bible says about marriage. We have tried to be guided in our actions by our Christian beliefs.”