Over 2,000 people squeezed into the Waterfront Hall in Belfast for an event in support of Ashers Baking Company, ahead of the court case starting tomorrow.
Hundreds who were unable to get into the venue stood outside and sang hymns in the cold.
The main hall with a capacity of over 2,000 seats was full, and more than a hundred fitted into an overflow room with a live audio feed.
Simon Calvert, spokesman for The Christian Institute – which hosted the meeting and is supporting Ashers – said it was “an extraordinary evening”.
“We are really grateful to the staff for squeezing people in everywhere they could, behind screens, and setting up relays for overflow areas,” he said.
“I went outside to apologise to the crowd that they could not come in and they burst into clapping and cheering. They were just so pleased that so many people had turned out to support Ashers”, he added.
The rally featured Ashers General Manager Daniel McArthur, who said this is a stressful time, but that all their fears and worries find answers in the Bible. He asked for prayer for a just outcome for the family – and for Christian businesses around the country.
He said it is possible to disagree with someone and still treat them with gentleness and respect, but since the Commission does not accept this explanation, on Thursday “we’ll be in court because we believe that the word of God is of far greater importance than the words of the Equality Commission”.
Mr Calvert said Daniel was “clearly moved, as were many of his family who attended. They are delightful, gentle people”.
“Some people came all the way from Dublin and Enniskillen to show their support. I was speaking to some people at the meeting who are not coming at this from a perspective of faith but thought this was important enough to show their support”, he said.
He explained that this case “is simply about whether someone should be forced to promote a message with which they profoundly disagree and everyone ought to have that freedom not to be forced to promote a message that they don’t agree with”.
The Belfast Newsletter reported comments from an eyewitness who passed the hundreds of people singing outside the Waterfront last night: “They were a very sincere bunch. It was quite moving to see. There was no sense of aggression, just a real feeling of solidarity.”
During the meeting, Christian B&B owner Hazelmary Bull also shared her story of being sued by a gay couple over their married couples-only double bed policy.
The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland’s court case against the McArthur family over their refusal to decorate a pro-gay marriage campaign cake starts in Belfast tomorrow.
The Commission claims that Ashers broke discrimination laws, but the bakery were unaware of the sexual orientation of the customer – they simply did not want to endorse a message with which they disagreed.
A new poll in Northern Ireland has revealed overwhelming support for the right to freedom of expression.
The ComRes survey of more than 1,000 adults showed that 90 per cent say equality laws “should be used to protect people from discrimination and not to force people to say something they oppose”.