Extraordinary scenes as Support Ashers event draws thousands ahead of tomorrow’s court case
The Christian Institute
Wednesday 25 March 2015
For immediate use
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 sung 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 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 that this was of such importance that they had to come and 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”.
Last week The Christian Institute released details of a legal opinion from leading human rights QC Aidan O’Neill, who stated that if Ashers lose, there would be no defence to similar actions being taken against other businesses in similar scenarios.
He outlined scenarios such as a Muslim printer refusing to print cartoons of Mohammed, and a lesbian-owned T-shirt business refusing to print clothing with anti-gay marriage slogans.
The case follows a decision last year by Ashers Baking Company to decline an order placed at its Belfast store from a gay rights activist asking for a £36.50 cake featuring the message, ‘Support Gay Marriage’ alongside the Sesame Street puppets, Bert and Ernie.
The customer also wanted the cake to feature the logo of a Belfast-based campaign group called “Queerspace”. The McArthur family, who own and run the business, refused to make the cake because it carried a message contrary to their firmly-held Christian beliefs.
But the ECNI launched a civil action against the company, claiming its actions violate equality laws in Northern Ireland and alleging discrimination under two anti-discrimination statutes – the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (NI) 2006 and the Fair Employment and Treatment Order (NI) 1998.
The case raises key issues of public importance regarding the protection of rights to freedom of expression and freedom of conscience and religion.
Leading human rights QC Aidan O’Neill issued a legal opinion stating that if Ashers lose, there would also be no defence to similar actions being taken against other businesses in similar scenarios.