The Christian faith “is under fire” and the law must be changed to protect religious convictions, a rally in support of the Ashers Baking Company has heard.
Around 500 people were at Craigavon Civic Centre on Monday night - less than two days before a court in Belfast hears the company’s appeal against a ruling that it illegally discriminated against a gay customer.
Ashers’ owners were found to have acted unlawfully by refusing to bake a cake with a slogan supporting same-sex marriage.
The McArthur family, who own and run the business, said they were not prepared to fulfil the order because it conflicted with their deeply held Christian beliefs that marriage should be between one man and one woman.
In May last year, a judge ordered the company – which is managed by Daniel McArthur – to pay £500 damages for breaching political and sexual orientation discrimination regulations.
Simon Calvert of the Christian Institute told last night’s gathering: “Something has gone wrong, when good people like the McArthurs are being hauled before the courts just for holding to that simple view.
Millions of ordinary people who do not agree with same-sex marriage face intimidation and threat of legal action
“People must be free to manifest genuine, reasonable moral and religious convictions without fear of unfair discrimination and mistreatment.”
Mr Calvert said equality legislation must change to allow for a “reasonable accommodation”.
He said: “We all know that people who believe, as a matter of conviction, that real marriage can only take place between a man and a woman, those people will face unreasonable hostility and unfair treatment sometimes in the workplace and elsewhere.
“Millions of ordinary people who do not agree with same-sex marriage face a kind of intimidation, and actually a real threat of legal action sometimes if they, in good conscience, decline to provide goods or services to campaign groups they don’t approve of.”
The McArthurs have been given financial backing by the Christian Institute in their court battle with the Northern Ireland Equality Commission.
Mr Calvert highlighted a number of cases in England where the Institute had supported Christians who had fallen foul of equality legislation or unsympathetic employers - including Peter and Hazelmary Bull who refused to allow two gay men to share a bed at their Cornwall B&B in 2008.
Another case referred to by the Institute’s deputy director was that of Rev Brian Ross, a police chaplain in Scotland who lost his position after voicing support for traditional marriage in a totally reasonable way on his own personal blog.
“Whether it is a baker or a B&B, there ought to be room for their beliefs on the rare occasions when doing what the customer wants would force them into a genuine and serious moral compromise. In those circumstances the law must respect their freedom of belief,” he said.
Mr Calvert added: “People who disagree with the McArthurs who would still defend their freedom. Some of you will have read or heard on the radio that the gay rights activist Peter Tatchell has changed his mind, having previously opposed Ashers’ freedom, he know supports it.
“And he recognises that while he disagrees with their views, they ought to be free to run their businesses, without being forced to help promote views with which they profoundly disagree.”
As the supporters of Ashers and the Christian Institute arrived at the civic centre, around 30 gay rights supporters with placards and rainbow flags staged a protest at the entrance.
Protest organiser Daniel May told the News Letter that the Peter Tatchell U-turn on the issue would not weaken their resolve to demand action to combat discrimination.
“When I read about the [Ashers’ support] meeting at first I thought it must be a bit of a wind up,” he said.
“It annoys me that people still want to support something like that. I thought this had all passed. But if the case has done anything, it has made people think about their legal obligations when providing services and that is a good thing,” Mr May added.
Speaking immediately following the court’s ruling last May.
Mr McArthur said: “We’re extremely disappointed with the judgment. We’ve said from the start that our issue was with the message on the cake, not the customer, and we didn’t know what the sexual orientation of Mr Lee was, and it wasn’t relevant either.
“We’ve always been happy to serve any customers that come into our shops. The ruling suggests that all business owners will have to be willing to promote any cause or campaign no matter how much they disagree with it. Or as the Equality Commission has suggested, they should perhaps just close down, and that can’t be right.