Ashers: Commission only got top advice after making threat

The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland only took advice from a senior barrister after its threat of legal action against a Christian-run bakery led to a global media outcry.

Documents shown to the The Belfast News Letter under the Freedom of Information Act revealed a key email exchange between senior staff at the taxpayer-funded Commission.

Anne McKernan, the Commission’s Director of Legal Services, wrote to the Chief Executive Evelyn Collins highlighting local and national interest in the case.

Prime Minister

She said: “Given that the matter was brought to the attention of the Prime Minister and commented upon by the media legal correspondent Joshua Rozenberg, among many, many others – I think it may be prudent for the Commission to have the views of a senior barrister.”

Collins responded saying she agreed on the need for very good advice.

A spokesman for the Commission later confirmed that some legal help was sought before the threat was made.

Legal work

“The legal funding committee of the Commission granted assistance for preliminary legal work on this case up to and including counsel’s opinion and junior counsel was briefed”, he said.

“Senior counsel’s opinion has now been obtained and this will be considered by the legal funding committee”, he added.

Further documents shown to the newspaper revealed significant public opposition to the Equality Commission’s actions.

Threatened

Earlier this year Ashers Baking Company was threatened with legal action after it declined to produce a pro-gay marriage campaign cake.

The McArthur family, who own Ashers Baking Company in the Belfast area, said they could not fulfil the order because it conflicts with their Christian belief about marriage being between a man and a woman.

The Christian Institute’s Legal Defence Fund is financially supporting this case, which proves the need for the law to reasonably accommodate family-run businesses with firmly held beliefs.

Conscience clause

The incident was raised during Prime Minister’s Questions by DUP MP Gregory Campbell, who asked whether religious freedom should be protected by a conscience clause.

David Cameron responded that he was unaware of the Ashers case.

He said: “But I do think a commitment to equality in terms of racial equality, in terms of equality to those of different sexes, equality in terms of people who have disabilities or indeed tolerance and equality of people with different sexualities, all of that is a very important part of being British.”

Under the Equality Act 2010, religion is one of nine protected characteristics. However, Mr Cameron failed to mention this in his answer.

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