The Evangelical Alliance has welcomed a leading gay rights campaigner’s change of heart over the Ashers’ cake court ruling.
Peter Tatchell had initially condemned the Christian-owned baking company over its refusal to produce a cake with a pro-same sex marriage slogan, but on Monday described the “unlawful discrimination” verdict “a step too far”.
In May last year, a Belfast judge ordered the company – which is managed by Daniel McArthur – to pay £500 damages for treating the customer “less favourably” in breach of political and sexual orientation discrimination regulations.
An appeal against the court’s decision is listed for hearing on Wednesday and Thursday.
Writing in the Guardian newspaper, Mr Tatchell said that much as he wished to defend the gay community, he also wants “to defend freedom of conscience, expression and religion”.
He said: “The law suit against the bakery was well-intended. It sought to challenge homophobia. But it was a step too far.
“It pains me to say this, as a long-time supporter of the struggle for LGBT equality in Northern Ireland. The equality laws are intended to protect people against discrimination.
“A business providing a public service has a legal duty to do so without discrimination based on race, gender, faith and sexuality.
“However, the court erred by ruling that Lee was discriminated against because of his sexual orientation and political opinions.”
Mr Tatchell added: “They [McArthurs] claim to be Christians, yet Jesus never once condemned homosexuality, and discrimination is not a Christian value. Ashers’ religious justifications are, to my mind, theologically unsound.
“Nevertheless, on reflection the court was wrong to penalise Ashers and I was wrong to endorse its decision.
“This finding of political discrimination against Lee sets a worrying precedent. Northern Ireland’s laws against discrimination on the grounds of political opinion were framed in the context of decades of conflict.
“There was never an intention that this law should compel people to promote political ideas with which they disagreed.
“I profoundly disagree with Ashers bakery’s opposition to same-sex love – but believe the discrimination verdict infringes vital freedoms.”
Welcoming Mr Tatchell’s comments, Evangelical Alliance spokesman Peter Lynas said: “Peter Tatchell is to be commended for his U-turn on Ashers, recognising that the decision was a ‘step too far’ which set a ‘worrying precedent’.
“His concern for freedom of conscience, expression and religion seems to have led to this welcome change of mind.”
Mr Lynas added: “As Peter says, ‘discrimination against people should be unlawful, but not against ideas’.
“I hope others will now see that this case goes beyond particular individuals or groups and impacts on the freedom of everybody.
“It’s great to be part of such a broad coalition supporting Ashers.”