Peter Tatchell has said that the lawsuit against Ashers bakery was a 'step too far'

The prominent gay rights campaigner, Peter Tatchell, has said that he has changed his mind about a landmark legal ruling, involving a bakery run by Christians in Northern Ireland, which is due to be challenged this week.

Husband and wife Daniel and Amy McArthur, who run Ashers Bakery in Northern Ireland, were told last year by Belfast High Court that they had unlawfully discriminated against a customer when they refused to bake him a cake with a pro gay-marriage slogan on it and were ordered to pay £500 in damages. Ashers Bakery’s appeal against the decision is due to begin on Wednesday.

Despite supporting the verdict which was issued last November, Peter Tatchell has written an article for the Guardian in which he says the law suit against the couple was “a step too far”.

Tatchell writes: “It pains me to say this, as a long-time supporter of the struggle for LGBT equality in Northern Ireland, where same-sex marriage and gay blood donors remain banned. The equality laws are intended to protect people against discrimination. A business providing a public service has a legal duty to do so without discrimination based on race, gender, faith and sexuality.

“However, the court erred by ruling that Lee was discriminated against because of his sexual orientation and political opinions. His cake request was refused not because he was gay, but because of the message he asked for. There is no evidence that his sexuality was the reason Ashers declined his order.”

Mr Tatchell also expressed concerns about the wider implications of the ruling for freedom of conscience. He said: “This finding of political discrimination against Lee sets a worrying precedent. Northern Ireland’s laws against discrimination on the grounds of political opinion were framed in the context of decades of conflict. They were designed to heal the sectarian divide by preventing the denial of jobs, housing and services to people because of their politics. There was never an intention that this law should compel people to promote political ideas with which they disagreed.

“The judge concluded that service providers are required to facilitate any ‘lawful’ message, even if they have a conscientious objection. This raises the question: should Muslim printers be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed? Or Jewish ones publish the words of a Holocaust denier? Or gay bakers accept orders for cakes with homophobic slurs? If the Ashers verdict stands it could, for example, encourage far-right extremists to demand that bakeries and other service providers facilitate the promotion of anti-migrant and anti-Muslim opinions. It would leave businesses unable to refuse to decorate cakes or print posters with bigoted messages.”

He concluded: “In my view, it is an infringement of freedom to require businesses to aid the promotion of ideas to which they conscientiously object. Discrimination against people should be unlawful, but not against ideas.”

In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Daniel McArthur said they were launching their appeal in order to protect the rights of Christians in the workplace.

“The big factor for us in going to appeal is that it is not just for ourselves but also for other Christians working in business or, like us, owning a business. Hopefully if we can win the appeal it will give them additional rights and say that you can be a Christian and hold Christian beliefs outside the home or the church without feeling threatened,” said.