A Northern Ireland bakery was found guilty Tuesday of discrimination for refusing to make a cake bearing the slogan "Support Gay Marriage," a verdict welcomed by human rights activists but denounced by Christian conservatives in the British territory.
In her ruling, Belfast Judge Isobel Brownlie called the bakery's cancellation of the order "direct discrimination for which there can be no justification." The judge said the bakery was a business, not a religious organization, and therefore had no legal basis to reject an order based on a customer's sexual orientation or beliefs.
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She said the bakers knew the customer, Gareth Lee, was gay and they would have provided him a cake bearing a message that supported traditional heterosexual marriage.
The judge ordered the family-run Ashers Bakery to pay Lee 500 pounds ($775) and legal costs, which have run into the tens of thousands.
Northern Ireland's Equality Commission pursued the lawsuit on behalf of Lee, who had ordered the cake for a gay rights event. Same-sex marriages were legalized last year in the rest of the United Kingdom but remain unrecognized in Northern Ireland.
"This is not about the cake," said Michael Wardlow, chief commissioner of the Equality Commission. "It's about whether someone like Gareth must walk into a shop or hotel or restaurant and wonder: Can I be served here because they may have a different religious opinion of me?"
Ashers Bakery initially accepted Lee's order but called him two days later to cancel it, citing the bakery owners' evangelical Christian beliefs. Lee had wanted the cake to depict "Sesame Street" characters Bert and Ernie alongside the pro-gay marriage slogan.
Opinion polls indicate majority opposition to gay marriage in Northern Ireland. In March, thousands rallied in support of Ashers Bakery.
The bakery owners' son, Daniel McArthur, said their family would refuse to make the cake if asked again.
"We just want to live and work in accordance with our religious beliefs," he said. "We know we've done the right decision before God, and we've no regrets about what we've done."