Ashers Bakery boss tells cheering Christians: We will not back down on 'gay cake' row
Not since the Great British Bake-Off star Paul Hollywood strode onto the stage of the Waterfront Hall in Belfast a few months back has a baker received a welcome like it.
Daniel McArthur, whose Ashers bakery firm is at the centre of a legal battle over the cake they refused to make for a gay activist, responded to the cheers of supporters with a vow that he and his parents were going to fight on.
Up to a thousand people were turned away 20 minutes before the scheduled start time of the rally backing the McArthurs because there were no seats left inside the 2,200-capacity Waterfront.
The Christians who couldn't get in stood outside and sang hymns instead and collected more than £3,000 in buckets for the Ashers defence fund in just 30 minutes.
Simon Calvert, the deputy director of the Christian Institute which organised the rally, apologised to the people outside, saying there was simply no space left inside, an announcement which was greeted with cries of Hallelujah and cheers.
A number of buses carrying supporters from as far away as Fermanagh arrived too late but one of the organisers, Blane Bailey, said: "I'm still glad I came here to support our fellow believers."
Ballynahinch couple Tina and Peter Thompson, who got as far as the foyer, said they were also there to back the McArthur family.
Mrs Thompson said: "It's an outrageous case especially as the case has been brought by a state-funded organisation which means that the people are paying for it.
"You would think we were in North Korea and being told how we should think and believe."
Her husband said: "The crowds here tonight show just strong the feelings are about the case. It's beyond all expectations."
Retired missionary Michael Patrick from Maghaberry was also unable to get a seat and he said: "I've never seen anything quite like this. I only wish I could have got inside."
Christian Institute lawyer Sam Webster told the audience that people across the UK were praying for a fair outcome to the case at the Laganside court complex across the road from the Waterfront.
He said the implications for businesses as a result of the Ashers ruling could be far-reaching.
Another speaker at the Waterfront was Hazelmary Bull, who was prosecuted for refusing to allow a gay couple to sleep together in her Cornish guesthouse, and she received a standing ovation as she took to the stage.
She said she had received death threats over her stance but supporting the McArthurs, adding: "Christians have to stand up and be counted".
Not long afterwards the very first sight of Daniel McArthur had the 2,000-plus Christians in the auditorium on their feet.
Mr McArthur shyly acknowledged the cheers of support but if he was uncomfortable in the spotlight among his own faithful last night, friends said he will be more ill at ease tomorrow as he swaps the Waterfront for the Laganside courts complex across the road to defend himself in one of Northern Ireland's most unusual cases.
Any judgment in the case is likely to be reserved, meaning the row will rumble on for some time yet.
The Equality Commission brought a civil case against Ashers because they cancelled a cake order for Gareth Lee, a gay activist who wanted them to decorate it with a message supporting same-sex marriage which the Christian-owned firm said was totally against their strongly-held religious beliefs.
The commission has accused Ashers of acting unlawfully and discriminating against Mr Lee on the grounds of his sexual orientation which the firm is denying.
The case has made headlines and attracted interest from around the world.
And the case has also sparked a fierce row - some have called it a farce row - over whether the might of the law should be brought down on a company over a cake.
The Equality Commission has defended its decision to take legal action, saying the cake case raised issues of public importance regarding the extent to which suppliers of goods and services can refuse service on grounds of sexual orientation, religious belief and political opinion.
In his address last night, Mr McArthur didn't veer too much from what he has already said at other rallies in support of his company, addresses which have been widely circulated on the internet by the Christian Institute.
Mr McArthur said: "We will not be forced to promote a cause with which we fundamentally disagree because our Biblical beliefs are the highest priority as to how we live and conduct our lives."
Whereas Ashers didn't fulfil the gay cake order, Mr McArthur said last night he believed the Lord would deliver for them.