Northern Ireland’s attorney general has said the Court of Appeal was wrong in its treatment of the couple at the centre of the “gay cake” case.

The Christian owners of Ashers Bakery were found to have discriminated by refusing in 2014 to make the product iced with the slogan Support Gay Marriage.

The order placed by gay rights activist Gareth Lee is at the centre of a Supreme Court hearing in Belfast this week.

Attorney general John Larkin QC said: “The Court of Appeal were quite wrong to see the McArthurs in some way as the authors of their own misfortune, with the forced speech arising only from their wide offer.”

Counsel for Daniel and Amy McArthur, who own Ashers, has argued that the state is penalising the Belfast baking firm, with the courts effectively compelling or forcing them to make a cake whose
message they disagree with as a matter of religious conscience.

Mr Larkin said offers in printed material from Ashers’ owners around celebration cakes for sporting organisations which they did not support were incomparable to the gay marriage refusal.

Ashers Bakery in Belfast (Brian Lawless/PA)
Ashers Bakery in Belfast (Brian Lawless/PA)

He added: “There is a global difference between that and a highly charged political message.”

He said it had been “unimaginable” at the time the brochure on celebratory cakes was produced that someone would request the message Support Gay Marriage.

The five Supreme Court judges hearing the case were Lord Hodge, Lord Mance, Lady Hale, Lord Kerr and Lady Black.

The Ashers legal battle has run for four years and attracted enormous attention.

The original action against the McArthurs, who enjoy the backing of the Christian Institute lobby group, was taken by Mr Lee with the support of Northern Ireland’s Equality Commission and the bakers lost in the lower courts.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK or Ireland where same-sex marriage is outlawed, with Theresa May’s DUP allies staunch opponents of the practice.

Controversy first flared when Mr Lee, a member of the LGBT advocacy group Queer Space, requested a cake featuring Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie for a private function marking International Day Against Homophobia.

His order was accepted and he paid in full but, two days later, the company called to say it could not proceed due to the message requested.