Foster: Equality Commission need to have a long hard look at how they work with faith communities

First Minister of Northern Ireland Arlene Foster. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
First Minister of Northern Ireland Arlene Foster. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Northern Ireland’s Equality Commission needs to take a long look at itself and stop favouring the “metropolitan liberal elite definition” of equality, Stormont’s First Minister has said.

Democratic Unionist leader Arlene Foster criticised the publicly-funded watchdog for its handling of the so-called “gay cake” case when it supported a gay activist’s discrimination claim against Christian bakers.

The commission spent almost £90,000 in legal costs backing Gareth Lee, whose order for a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan was rejected by Ashers family run bakery.

Ashers’ owners, the McArthurs, were found to have discriminated against Mr Lee. That finding was upheld by the Court of Appeal in Belfast this week.

But the judgment did include some criticism of the Equality Commission.

It said the organisation should also have offered the McArthur family advice during the case, as the bakers believed their rights, as people of faith within the commercial sphere, were also being undermined.

Mrs Foster said she was studying the judgment very closely.

“We have an enormous amount of sympathy for the McArthur family,” she said.

“We feel they have been through an absolutely horrific time - not helped I have to say by the actions of Equality Commission.

“I think the Equality Commission have not covered themselves in glory in fact I think it’s quite troubling the way in which they have behaved in all of this.”

Noting the criticism in the judgment, she added: “I think they need to have a long hard look at how they work with faith communities in Northern Ireland and instead of accepting the metropolitan liberal elite definition of equality they need to look at what real equality is and look at the faith communities in Northern Ireland and that is something they haven’t been doing.”

After Monday’s judgment, Chief Commissioner Dr Michael Wardlow insisted the organisation did represent the rights of all people in society, highlighting a recent case where it supported a man who did not want to work on Sundays due to his beliefs.

In response to Mrs Foster’s comments, a spokeswoman for the NI Equality Commission said: “The Equality Commission would reiterate that, in supporting the individual taking this case, it is acting in accordance with the statutory remit under which it was established, as an independent public body at arms length from Government, with an important role in ensuring effective application of Northern Ireland’s equality laws.

“This case has raised issues of public importance, regarding the extent to which goods and services providers can refuse service on the grounds of sexual orientation, religious belief and political opinion, and the decision of the Court of Appeal has confirmed this.

“The law protects the rights of all people to hold religious beliefs, and the right to manifest them, but they cannot do so in the commercial sphere in a way which is contrary to the rights of others.

“The Equality Commission provides advice and guidance to all businesses and will work with them to identify and take practical steps to assist them carry on their business within the law.”