The head of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland has claimed that Christians who want to run their businesses according to their beliefs should either “look at the law” or change career.
Michael Wardlow made the comments in an interview with The Guardian ahead of the Commission’s court case against a Christian-run bakery that starts next week.
The Commission claims that Ashers Baking Company broke discrimination laws by declining to decorate a pro-gay marriage campaign cake last year.
The Christian Institute, which is supporting Ashers, said Wardlow is “seriously mistaken” about the facts of the case, and described his claim about Christian-business owners needing to change career as “outrageous”.
The McArthur family, who own and run Ashers, had no idea about the sexual orientation of the customer who ordered the cake, but they did not want to promote a cause with which they disagree.
When questioned about the case, Wardlow said: “If someone here in Northern Ireland is running an establishment as a person of faith and is compelled against their will but by law to serve an LGBT person then that can hardly be said to be persecution.
“I can understand how they might feel in their Christian conscience that that is a difficult thing.
“Well, I would then say either look at the law or maybe that is not the business they should be in.”
And he dismissed the idea that Christians are being marginalised in the Province: “Christians are equally protected by legislation and if anyone believes they are discriminated against because of their beliefs I would argue they should come to us.”
A spokesman for The Christian Institute said: “Michael Wardlow is seriously mistaken about the Ashers case.
“The McArthurs knew nothing about whether the customer who ordered the cake was gay or heterosexual – they simply do not want to be forced to promote a cause with which they fundamentally disagree.
“It is also outrageous for the head of the Equality Commission himself to imply that Christians who want to live their lives according to their deeply-held beliefs must toe the line or change jobs.
“This is a free speech issue, and the Commission does not seem to recognise that the law should not force a person to endorse something that goes against their deeply-held beliefs and values.”
This week, a leading human rights QC warned that the Commission could face a huge number of cases if Ashers Baking Company loses.
He outlined the kind of cases that could end up in court, such as a Muslim printer refusing to print cartoons of Mohammed, and a T-shirt company owned by lesbians declining to print clothes with anti-gay marriage slogans.
In Great Britain, a recent survey by the Equality and Human Rights Commission revealed widespread discrimination against Christians.