The Christian faith “is under fire” and the law must be changed to protect religious convictions, a rally in support of Ashers Baking Company has heard.
Around 500 people were at Craigavon Civic Centre on Tuesday – less than two days before a court in Belfast hears the company’s appeal against a ruling that it illegally discriminated against a gay customer.
As those attending the meeting gathered a peaceful protest was held outside by supporters of same sex marriage and equal rights.
Ashers’ owners were found to have acted unlawfully by refusing to bake a cake with a slogan supporting same-sex marriage.
The McArthur family, who own and run the business, said they were not prepared to fulfil the order because it conflicted with their deeply held Christian beliefs that marriage should be between one man and one woman.
In May last year, a judge ordered the company – which is managed by Daniel McArthur – to pay £500 damages for breaching political and sexual orientation discrimination regulations.
Simon Calvert of the Christian Institute told Tuesday night’s gathering: “Something has gone wrong, when good people like the McArthurs are being hauled before the courts just for holding to that simple view. People must be free to manifest genuine, reasonable moral and religious convictions without fear of unfair discrimination and mistreatment.”
Mr Calvert said equality legislation must change to allow for a “reasonable accommodation”.
The McArthurs have been given financial backing by the Christian Institute in their court battle with the Northern Ireland Equality Commission.
Mr Calvert highlighted a number of cases in England where the Institute had supported Christians who had fallen foul of equality legislation or unsympathetic employers – including Peter and Hazelmary Bull who refused to allow two gay men to share a bed at their Cornwall B&B in 2008.
As the supporters of Ashers and the Christian Institute arrived at the civic centre, around 30 gay rights supporters with placards and rainbow flags staged a protest at the entrance.
Protest organiser Daniel May said: “When I read about the [Ashers’ support] meeting at first I thought it must be a bit of a wind up.
“It annoys me that people still want to support something like that.
“I thought this had all passed. But if the case has done anything, it has made people think about their legal obligations when providing services and that is a good thing,” Mr May added.