Gay cake ruling: Ashers bakery family owed ‘a debt of gratitude’

A DUP MLA who sought to thwart any future repetition of cases like Ashers has said gratitude is owed to the family behind Ashers.

The Christian owners of the NI bakery have won an appeal at the UK’s highest court over a finding that they discriminated against a customer by refusing to make a cake decorated with the words ‘Support Gay Marriage’.

Paul Givan had tried to introduce a 'conscience clause' at the Assembly in 2014

Paul Givan had tried to introduce a 'conscience clause' at the Assembly in 2014

Five Supreme Court justices allowed a challenge by the McArthur family in a unanimous ruling in London in what has become widely known as the ‘gay cake case’.

The legal action was originally brought against family-run Ashers bakery in Belfast by gay rights activist Gareth Lee, who won his case initially in the county court and then at the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal.

Paul Givan, Assemblyman for Lagan Valley, had recommended introducing a bill at Stormont in late 2014 to establish a “conscience clause”, making it clearer what rights firms and individuals have to refuse business which conflicts with their beliefs.

Writing in the News Letter, he gave examples of what it would mean, saying under his proposed law (which ended up not proceeding) “a Muslim printer would not be required to print a book promoting same-sex relationships in violation of his faith identity”, and that an evangelical photographer would be allowed to turn down a job at a same-sex civil partnership ceremony.

Today he declared the McArthur family are owed “a debt of gratitude for the faithful stand they have taken”.

He added: “The debate generated by the Equality Commission of Northern Ireland pursuing the McArthur family through the courts has caused unnecessary division and wasted hundreds of thousands of pounds. The ramifications for the Equality Commission will be profound.”

Meanwhile, South Antrim DUP MP Paul Girvan said that it is “a victory not just for the McArthur family however, but for wider society and everyone who values freedom of speech and freedom of conscience”.

And via Twitter, party leader Arlene Foster praised the “grace and perseverance” of the McArthurs, adding: “A fundamental freedom was on trial.

“It is dangerous for society if our laws force people to say things they don’t believe.”

In contrast to the range of delighted comments from DUP figures, Sinn Fein’s Megan Fearon, MLA for Newry and Armagh, said the news was met with “disappointment” both by her and “the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community”.

Alliance chief whip Kellie Armstrong, MLA for Strangford, said the judgment does not give “carte blanche” to business owners who want to discriminate against people.

She added: “Nor does it create a de facto ‘conscience clause’, and Alliance remains opposed to any such exemption either through the backdoor or via legislation.”

And the Green Party, in a statement from Malachai O’Hara (who does not hold elected office but is a candidate for the party in north Belfast), said: “The ruling should not be misused to vindicate discrimination and I am concerned that the findings may be manipulated to propagate homophobia and transphobia.

“We must listen to Gareth Lee when he says that the entire matter and the Supreme Court ruling makes him feel like a second-class citizen.”

He added: “The vast majority of people across Northern Ireland support marriage equality and equal rights for queer citizens...

“This judgement is a disappointment but queer people, their families and allies can be sure that the Green Party will continue to work for equality for all citizens.”

Meanwhile, both the SDLP and UUP were much more muted in their positions, with neither having issued a statement to the News Letter at time of writing.