The man who hosted the gay rights event in 2014 for which customer Gareth Lee ordered the ‘Support Gay Marriage’ cake from Ashers says he’d have preferred if the case had never gone to court.
Ards and North Down councillor Andrew Muir, Northern Ireland’s first openly gay mayor, spoke out about the long-running legal battle after the UK’s highest court ruled in favour of the bakery’s Christian owners, the McArthur family.
Responding to questions from the News Letter, the Alliance Party representative didn’t say if he agreed with the ruling handed down by the Supreme Court justices, but stressed he would have preferred to see the case resolved through mediation.
Mr Lee ordered the £36.50 cake from Ashers Baking Company’s Belfast store as a gift for Councillor Muir, who was hosting the event in Bangor to mark International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. But the company’s refusal to produce the cake sparked a discrimination complaint that spiralled into a four-and-a-half year legal row that made headlines across the world.
Mr Lee’s complaint was backed by The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, but the McArthurs denied discriminating against him, arguing that they’d refused to make the cake because the ‘Support Gay Marriage’ message went against their firmly held religious beliefs.
After being found guilty of discrimination by a County Court judge in Belfast and ordered to pay damages of £500 – a ruling upheld by the Court of Appeal – the UK Supreme Court this week overturned those findings and ruled that Ashers, who were backed in their case by The Christian Institute, hadn’t discriminated against Mr Lee and were entitled to refuse the cake order.
The court’s ruling has been widely welcomed as a victory for freedom of conscience, but it has also sparked stinging criticism of the taxpayer-funded Equality Commission and calls for its chief commissioner to resign.
Reacting to the fallout from the case, which has so far cost an estimated £500,000, Cllr Muir said: “As a Christian gay man I have been very saddened by the polarised debate which has ensued in recent days following the judgement. Both the Alliance Party and I would have preferred that this case be resolved through mediation rather than the courts.
“The issues concerned are complex with careful reflection of the judgement required to ensure anti-discrimination legislation is upheld on all grounds, including political opinion, sexual orientation and religious belief, while respecting the right to freedom of religion and from religion.”
Stressing that he respects “the independence of the Equality Commission and their work to ensure equality for all”, Cllr Muir said all forms of discrimination and intolerance against LGBT people must be challenged and rejected by everyone without equivocation.