A Christian bakery in Northern Ireland was on Tuesday found guilty of discrimination for refusing to bake a cake advocating gay marriage in a landmark legal case brought by local authorities.
Ashers Baking Company, which takes its name from an Old Testament figure, took the order but declined to make a cake with the bedroom-sharing characters Bert and Ernie from the US television show "Sesame Street".
"The defendants have unlawfully discriminated against the plaintiff on grounds of sexual discrimination," judge Isobel Brownlie told a packed courtroom in Belfast at the end of a high-profile inquiry.
"This is direct discrimination for which there can be no justification," the judge said.
People walk by a branch of Ashers Baking Company that refused to make a cake depicting a pro-gay marriage slogan ordered by gay rights activist Gareth Lee, in Belfast on March 26, 2015. (AFP PHOTO)
Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom where same-sex marriage remains against the law. Gay marriage is a highly divisive issue in the province, where church attendances in both the Protestant and Catholic communities remain strong.
The case comes ahead of an historic referendum on Friday that is expected to approve same-sex marriage in the traditionally Catholic Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland's southern neighbour.
The lawsuit was brought by Northern Ireland's Equality Commission, which oversees the implementation of anti-discrimination laws, on behalf of an activist from the advocacy group Queer Space.
The cake was ordered for a private function to mark International Day Against Homophobia last year.
Ashers Bakery, which employs 80 people in Britain and Ireland, received financial backing in the case from the Christian Institute, a charity.
The row has prompted a proposal from some local politicians to include a "conscience clause" in Northern Ireland's anti-discrimination laws.