Northern Ireland’s First Minister has said faith communities in the Province are experiencing a “chill factor” after last month’s disappointing Ashers Baking Company judgment.
Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP, said she has heard concerns on a ‘weekly basis’.
On 24 October, judges at the Court of Appeal in Belfast upheld last year’s ruling against Ashers, which said they had discriminated against customer Gareth Lee, for refusing to bake a cake bearing the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’.
The court also stated that the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI), which took Ashers to court, had given the impression it was not interested in assisting the faith community in cases like this.
Mrs Foster said: “It is incumbent upon the Equality Commission to indicate to the Executive how it intends to remedy what has been pointed out to it by the court and what affirmative action it intends to take in terms of faith communities”.
She added, “there is certainly a chill factor there for faith communities. That is communicated to me weekly, and the commission have to take notice of it”.
“I have to ask this question: where is the balance in dealing with faith communities in Northern Ireland? It is something I will be asking the Equality Commission to comment directly and give me some feedback on that”, she said.
The First Minister said that the taxpayer-funded ECNI ran up legal costs of more than £100,000 while pursuing the case against Ashers.
Handing down the judgment in Belfast last month, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan and two other senior judges upheld County Court Judge Isobel Brownlie’s previous ruling that the McArthur family discriminated against Gareth Lee.
The judges recognised that the family did not refuse the service because Mr Lee was gay, but nonetheless ruled that refusing the order because of its slogan “was direct discrimination”.
The judgment states that Ashers can provide a “service to all or none but not to a selection of customers”, adding: “What they may not do is provide a service that only reflects their own political or religious message in relation to sexual orientation”.
The McArthur family and The Christian Institute, which provided legal support for them, will be taking legal advice to see what options for appeal remain open.