Gay cake man wants Ashers dispute settled outside court
Eleventh-hour plea for mediation from gay councillor who was intended recipient of controversial gift
A man at the centre of Northern Ireland's gay cake controversy has urged both sides to resolve their dispute outside court.
In a dramatic last-minute intervention, Councillor Andrew Muir, the first openly gay mayor in Northern Ireland and the intended recipient of the gay rights cake, has called for mediation instead of a court battle.
"This is not an ideal test case. Unfortunately it's pitched people of religious belief against lesbian and gay people and I think that's very sad.
"It's not the type of society that I want in Northern Ireland where we have that adversarial set-up," Mr Muir said.
He added: "Let's try to resolve this outside the court because legal action should always be a last resort."
The eyes of the world will be on the court in Belfast today where the legal dispute is due to be heard.
Gay rights activists and Christian groups from across Ireland and the UK are expected to gather at Laganside Courthouse where a judge will be asked to decide if Ashers Bakery broke the law by refusing to bake a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan.
Two legal heavyweights, David Scoffield QC and Robin Allen QC, are due to battle it out over a two-day hearing in the court, which is expected to cost the taxpayer in excess of £30,000.
The court's ruling could have major implications for businesses across Northern Ireland.
Ashers Bakery will be represented by Mr Scoffield, who recently acted for a gay man who brought judicial review proceedings against former health minister Edwin Poots' decision to introduce a lifetime ban on homosexual men giving blood in Northern Ireland.
Gareth Lee, who has taken the case against Ashers Bakery is to be represented by Mr Allen. A specialist in equality, discrimination and human rights law, in 2013 Mr Allen won a case against two Christian guesthouse owners in Cornwall who refused a room to a gay couple.
In that case the judge said the rights of the B&B owners to bar the couple from sharing a room were outweighed by the need to correct "centuries of discrimination" against gay people.
The judge said that discrimination against homosexuals was "an affront to their dignity as human beings".
The B&B case followed a series of cases in which judges in London and Stasbourg have found against Christians who dissented from equality laws.
Among those were Lillian Ladele, a registrar in Islington who wanted to avoid presiding at civil partnership ceremonies and Gary McFarlane, a Relate counsellor sacked following a statement that he would not give sex therapy to a gay couple.
Ashers Baking Company was founded in Newtownabbey in 1992, and is run by the McArthur family who employ 62 people in 10 shops.