A supporter of a Northern Irish baker which refused to bake a same-sex marriage-themed cake has welcomed an about-turn on the issue by a high-profile gay rights activist.
The supporter of Ashers Baking Company welcomed Peter Tatchell's "U-turn" in his stance on the case ahead of an appeal against the so-called "gay cake" judgment.
The Belfast Court of Appeal this Wednesday will hear an appeal by the company against last year’s Belfast County Court decision which found Ashers guilty of discrimination against a gay rights advocate by refusing to bake him a cake with a slogan promoting same-sex marriage.
Ashers, which is run by the McArthur family and has six shops in the greater Belfast area, was ordered to pay £500 (€660) in compensation to Gareth Lee who, with the North's Equality Commission, took the case against the company.
Bert and Ernie
In May 2014, Ashers initially accepted an order for a cake for the Queerspace campaign group featuring Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie and bearing the slogan, "Support Gay Marriage".
The company, owned by Colin and Karen McArthur and managed by their son Daniel, subsequently declined the order on the basis it contravened their Christian beliefs.
In May last year, Judge Isobel Brownlie said Ashers was not a religious organisation but was "in business for profit". She found the company was "guilty of unlawful discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation".
The appeal, which opens on Wednesday morning, is expected to last two days.
This week Mr Tatchell, who initially supported the legal case against Ashers, said he had changed his mind. “Much as I wish to defend the gay community, I also want to defend freedom of conscience, expression and religion,” he wrote in the Guardian.
‘Infringement of freedom’
“In my view, it is an infringement of freedom to require businesses to aid the promotion of ideas to which they conscientiously object. Discrimination against people should be unlawful, but not against ideas,” he said.
“The lawsuit against the bakery was well-intended. It sought to challenge homophobia. But it was a step too far,” he added.
“This finding of political discrimination against Lee sets a worrying precedent.
“Northern Ireland’s laws against discrimination on the grounds of political opinion were framed in the context of decades of conflict,” said Mr Tatchell.
“They were designed to heal the sectarian divide by preventing the denial of jobs, housing and services to people because of their politics. There was never an intention that this law should compel people to promote political ideas with which they disagreed.”
Peter Lynas of the Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland said Mr Tatchell was to be commended for his U-turn. "His concern for freedom of conscience, expression and religion seems to have led to this welcome change of mind," he said.
Mr Lynas said he and Mr Tatchell had “sparred” many times in radio and TV debates and it was now “great” to be on the same side of the argument.
“I hope others will now see that this case goes beyond particular individuals or groups and impacts on the freedom of everybody. It’s great to be part of such a broad coalition supporting Ashers,” he said.