The Supreme Court has expressed concern that the Equality Commission may have created the impression it was not interested in helping people of faith when they find themselves in difficulty over matters of conscience.
Its five judges gave a unanimous decision, clearing Ashers bakery of discrimination in a legal case initially instigated by the Equality Commission, led by Chief Commissioner Dr Michael Wardlow.
But Ciaran Kelly, deputy director of The Christian Institute, said the initial correspondence from ECNI to Ashers in 2014 demonstrated “a rush to judgment”.
The first thing Ashers knew about the complaint against them, he said, was when they received a letter from ECNI telling them they had been found guilty of discrimination and must pay damages.
“But this was after the ECNI had only listened to one side of the story,” he said. “This was seriously prejudicial and it was obvious to the judges that the ECNI may have created the impression it was not so interested in assisting the faith community.”
In yesterday’s judgment the Supreme Court noted that the initial ECNI letter to Ashers caused both it and the Court of Appeal concern.
“The Court of Appeal expressed some concern that the correspondence between the ECNI and the bakery may have created the impression that the ECNI was not interested in assisting members of the faith community when they found themselves in difficulties as a result of their deeply held religious beliefs,” the Supreme Court said.
“It is obviously necessary for a body such as the ECNI to offer its services to all people who may need them because of a protected characteristic and not to give the impression of favouring one such characteristic over others.”
The ECNI responded that it has a statutory remit to support victims of discrimination, which it exercises “impartially, to all members of the community”.
It instituted legal proceedings on behalf of Gareth Lee as part of that responsibility, it said, but it did not have power to support Ashers in a discrimination case, it added.
However, it does offer equality advice and guidance to all businesses, in the form of training sessions, seminars, and in direct engagement.