The new junior minister at the Northern Ireland Office has said that businesses have to obey equality laws — even if they oppose gay marriage for religious reasons.
Speaking about the case being taken against the bakery which refused to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan, Andrew Murrison said that he believed businesses had to comply with the law, irrespective of the views of the owners.
The former Royal Navy surgeon, who took over as Secretary of State Theresa Villiers’ deputy earlier this month, said that he only voted for same-sex marriage after being assured that churches would not be forced to act against their beliefs.
Last month Ashers Baking Company in Newtownabbey received a letter for the Equality Commission telling it that it had acted “unlawfully” in refusing to make a cake with the slogan “Support gay marriage” and has said it will bring court action unless the bakery reverses its stance.
Last week the Equality Commission, which sponsors Belfast’s Gay Pride week of events, was awarded a community partnership award by Pride. The NIO has no role in overseeing the Equality Commission, which operates under the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.
The Christian Institute, which is supporting Ashers, has said that the case shows that David Cameron was wrong when he assured Parliament that gay marriage would not cause discrimination against those who oppose it.
In his first interview since taking up the post, Dr Murrison told the News Letter: “Before I voted for this, I consulted with the Attorney General because my worry was that churchmen and churches would be obliged to do things which their consciences told them they really could not. I was given a reassurance at that point that the legislation was such that that would not arise and on that basis I was prepared to support this particular measure.
“However, I think if you’re opening your premises for business you have to comply with the discrimination legislation.
“So, whilst I can understand the disquietude of the small business concerned, since they are I understand people of deep religious conviction, I have to say that in terms of running their business they have to comply with the law and the law, I think rightly, prevents discrimination against gay people.”
The bakery has stressed that it did not refuse the order because of the customer’s sexual orientation, but because of the message on the cake.
• See tomorrow’s News Letter for a profile of Dr Murrison