70% back Ashers Bakery in 'gay cake' row
Poll commissioned by the Christian Institute shows a majority against Equality Commmission legal action
More than 70% of people in Northern Ireland believe it is wrong for a Christian-run bakery to be taken to court over its refusal to make a cake supporting gay marriage, according to a new poll.
The research by ComRes, commissioned by the Christian Institute, which is supporting the Ashers firm in the row, found only one in four agrees with the High Court action.
Ashers' bosses will be brought before judges later this week for a two-day hearing.
The action was brought by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI), after the Newtownabbey-based business turned down an order for a cake bearing the slogan 'Support gay marriage' last summer.
The body claims Ashers' decision infringes on equality laws, and raises questions over when and how businesses can refuse service due to sexual orientation, religious belief or political opinion.
One thousand adults were questioned in the run-up to the legal hearing, which is expected to last several weeks before a judgment.
It found 77% believe the Equality Commission - a publicly-funded body - should not be using its cash to pursue Ashers through the courts.
Of those questioned, 90% believe equality laws should not be used to force people into saying or doing something they oppose, instead it should protect from discrimination.
ComRes said people of "all faiths and none, from across Northern Ireland" took part in the survey.
It looked at attitudes towards free speech, and also found 82% believe an atheist web designer should not be forced by the courts to design a website promoting the view that God made the world in six days.
And almost three-quarters of the adults questioned believe a printing company run by Catholics should not be legally forced to produce adverts calling for abortion to be legalised.
Andre Hawkins of ComRes believes most people in Northern Ireland back freedom of speech over the right not to be offended.
He said: "By an overwhelming majority, people believe that it is possible to have strong anti-discrimination laws while also protecting freedom of speech.
"The public do support setting limits to free speech: they are evenly split over whether it should include being able to offend people 'without being punished'.
"But this survey suggests that the point of offence where legal action is justified is not where the ECNI assumes it to be."
The Equality Commission said it would have preferred not to take the case to court and instead sought an "an acknowledgement that there has been an unlawful breach of the equality laws and an assurance that this will not be repeated", but when that was not provided, it pressed ahead.
A spokesman added: "The Equality Commission has an important role in ensuring effective application of Northern Ireland's equality laws and supports cases so that people are aware of, and can avail of, the protection these laws afford against all forms of unlawful discrimination."
A previous ComRes poll, held in July 2014, just months after the initial row, found 60% of adults believe the decision to take Ashers to court is "disproportionately heavy-handed".
A leading human rights lawyer has told the Belfast Telegraph the Equality Commission's case is flawed. Aidan O'Neill QC said if the judge rules in favour of the ECNI it could open the floodgates for an avalanche of litigation, because it ignores human rights laws.
Acting on behalf of the Christian Institute, Mr O'Neill claimed the Equality Commission case ignores the basic human right not to be forced or required to express support for a particular opinion or political position.
The dispute has had a ripple effect in the Republic of Ireland, where the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin has now called on the government to implement a similar provision ahead of the referendum on same-sex marriage.
Speaking at an event in Dublin, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said: "Our political culture does not foster the idea of people being able to express their conscience.
"Political parties have become more insensitive to the way people are thinking."
The Archbishop's proposal was rejected by rights group, Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, which claims it is "legalising discrimination" and "would leave people open to potential discrimination for years".
A similar clause already met opposition when it was debated around the time the Civil Partnership Bill was enacted in 2009.
Rights activist Tiernan Brady said: "It was thoroughly defeated then, after being debated fully in the Dail and the Seanad. It was roundly rejected."
The dispute made headlines once again earlier this month when a Drogheda printing firm refused to provide invitations for a civil partnership on religious grounds. The couple who placed the order said they were shocked, as one of the men had been a customer at the firm for four years.
Echoing Ashers' stance, Beulah Print defended the decision, and the owner said it was not the first time he had turned down business which was at odds with his Christian beliefs.
The survey was carried out by ComRes and commissioned by the Christian Institute, which is supporting Ashers bakery in the 'gay cake' dispute.
The research consultancy firm spoke to 1,000 adults across Northern Ireland between March 10-15, 2015.
The participants, who were all over 18, were asked a number of questions over the phone, and the results recorded.
It is not clear where the adults who took part are from, as no geographical breakdown was available.
Meanwhile DUP MLA Paul Givan has tabled a religious conscience clause Bill at Stormont seeking a legal exemption on the grounds of strongly held beliefs.
The Lagan Valley representative said that the clause would not allow someone to refuse to serve an individual who held contrary beliefs.
Sinn Fein has said that it will use a petition of concern to block the bill. Caitriona Ruane MLA said: "Sinn Fein said we would oppose any attempt to undermine the rights of all people in our society to have equal and fair service when buying goods and services."
The SDLP's Alex Attwood said if the Bill his party would also sign the petition of concern.
Green Party MLA Steven Agnew said: "The so-called 'conscience clause' is nothing but a thinly veiled attempt to legalise discrimination against LGB people."
In February more than 100,000 people signed a US petition in just 48 hours in opposition to the DUP plan. In December last year English comedian and actor Stephen Fry said the amendment Bill was 'sick'.