15,000 sign pro-Ashers petition as same-sex cake case back in court
Family cheered by support, says Christian Institute
More than 15,000 people have signed a petition backing the Christian family at the centre of the same-sex marriage cake row.
The McArthur family - the owners of Ashers Baking Company - are appealing a court ruling that they discriminated against a gay customer, and have been heartened by the support, the Christian Institute said.
The high-profile case is due back before the Court of Appeal tomorrow after it was halted last month following a last-minute intervention by Attorney General John Larkin.
Mr Larkin raised concerns over Northern Ireland's equality legislation just hours before the appeal was to be heard.
Detailed legal submissions from the Attorney General will be made to the court tomorrow in relation to his concerns about the legislation that had been used in the case against the McArthurs last year.
A full appeal hearing has been scheduled for May.
Simon Calvert of the Christian Institute, which is financially backing the McArthurs, welcomed the petition.
"It is heartening that support continues to pour in for the McArthur family and the stand they have taken," he said.
"In excess of 15,000 people have now signed our petition backing them.
"Some people have attempted to portray this case as a minor business dispute.
"But what is really at stake here are fundamental principles - free thought, free speech and freedom from coercion by the State.
"The court is going to hear arguments from the Attorney General on why he believes the laws used against the McArthurs may be flawed."
Last year Ashers was ordered to pay £500 for refusing to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan on it.
A Belfast court found that customer Gareth Lee had been discriminated against on the grounds of his sexual orientation.
He was backed in the case by the Northern Ireland Equality Commission, which paid almost £39,000 in legal fees.
The McArthur family decided to appeal the decision.
However, last month's case was halted by the Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, Lord Justice Weir and Lord Justice Weatherup following a last-minute request from Mr Larkin.
Mr Larkin wants to make representations in the case about any potential conflict between sections of Northern Ireland's equality legislation and United Kingdom and European human rights laws.
Legal proceedings were initially launched by Mr Lee, who is a member of LGBT advocacy group Queer Space.
In May 2014 Mr Lee ordered a cake featuring Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie, with the slogan 'Support gay marriage', for a private function marking International Day Against Homophobia.
He paid in full when placing the order at Ashers' Belfast branch.
But two days later the company phoned to say the order could not be processed and offered to pay Mr Lee his money back.
Following a three-day hearing last March, District Judge Isobel Brownlie found Ashers directly discriminated against Mr Lee, who had been treated "less favourably" contrary to the law.
Ordering the baker to pay damages of £500, the judge said religious beliefs could not dictate the law.
However, the McArthurs said they believed they were being punished for their Christian faith and that they should be allowed to retain the freedom to decline business that would force them to promote a cause with which they disagreed.