The Equality Commission has come under fire for backing a discrimination case against a Christian bakery after five Supreme Court judges unanimously decided that the business was innocent.
The outcome overturned previous decisions by Belfast County Court and the NI Court of Appeal, which both found Belfast-based Ashers bakery guilty of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation after it refused to supply a cake with the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’.
However, the Equality Commission of Northern Ireland (ECNI) said it was “disappointed” by the decision which it said was “contrary to what the legislature intended” .
TUV leader Jim Allister QC said: “I trust this decision will also bring the discredited Equality Commission to its senses. It’s promotion of this issue has had the sorry end it deserved.”
He has now submitted an Assembly motion, co-signed by DUP MLA Jim Wells, which states that the “flawed judgment” of ECNI has led to substantial loss of confidence in it from the Christian community, and which calls upon its Chief Commissioner, Dr Michael Wardlow, to resign.
DUP MEP Diane Dodds also welcomed the verdict. “Shame on the Equality Commission for driving this case at a considerable cost to taxpayers!” she tweeted.
UUP chief whip Steve Aiken MLA claimed that the full might of the state had wrongly escalated the matter against a small business on a matter of conscience – at huge expense to the taxpayer.
“I am on record as supporting marriage equality for Northern Ireland to bring it into line with the rest of the UK,” he said “However, the Ashers case is a very serious matter for a business based in my constituency.
“The fact is that due to their conscience, all this has been raised time and again to the next level by the Equality Commission, spending considerable amounts of taxpayers’ money at each stage, bringing the full might of the state against a small or medium sized business.”
He compared it to the legal battle over the proposed Arc21 incinerator near Glengormley.
“Again, in that case we saw the full might of the state at work against that business. Civil servants decided to go back and fight it again and again when it was quite clear that the issues had been addressed. In both cases you have to ask if the state has overplayed itself?”
If ECNI now challenges such a unanimous decision, he said, it will raise questions about its motives. “The Supreme Court came to this conclusion by unanimous decision, so you have to ask yourself, why would the ECNI take it further? If they did you would really have to ask what they are trying to do; would it be seeking justice or would it be politically motivated?”
Former Belfast deputy lord mayor DUP Alderman Guy Spence said common sense had prevailed. “Now, hopefully the Equality Commission will come to their senses and end this lengthy legal pursuit!”
Former mayor of North Down, DUP councillor Peter Martin, said it was “a great day” for the freedoms of conscience and religion.
“Massive questions remain about the conduct of the Equality Commission in this case,” he tweeted.
However, the ECNI said it was “disappointed” in the judgment.
“This case was about Mr [Gareth] Lee being denied a service by the bakery, which he felt was discriminatory,” the ECNI said.
“The Belfast County Court and the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal found that Mr Lee had been discriminated against on grounds of sexual orientation, political opinion and religious belief, in line with case law developed over the years.”
ECNI Chief Commissioner Dr Wardlow said he and complainant Mr Lee were now both considering what options they have.
“The Supreme Court has overturned these [previous] findings and we will have to look at the implications of its judgment carefully,” he said.
“There is a concern that this judgment may raise uncertainty about the application of equality law in the commercial sphere, both about what businesses can do and what customers may expect; and that the beliefs of business owners may take precedence over a customer’s equality rights, which in our view is contrary to what the legislature intended.”
In its verdict the Supreme Court 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.
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.