Gay rights champion Peter Tatchell says gay cake case bakers Ashers did nothing wrong
A leading gay rights campaigner has said he has changed his mind and he now supports Ashers Bakery in the same-sex marriage cake row.
Peter Tatchell said yesterday he now believes the ruling that the bakery discriminated against a gay customer infringes their freedom of conscience, expression and religion and could set a dangerous precedent for other businesses.
Following a high profile court case, a judge ruled that the bakery was guilty of discriminating against customer Gareth Lee because they refused to make a cake with the slogan "Support gay marriage".
The couple behind Ashers, Daniel and Amy McArthur, both have strong Christian views and said that they did not want to make something that went against these views.
Australian-born activist Tatchell has been a prominent human rights campaigner for over 40 years and had previously described the ruling last May as a "victory for equality".
His change of heart comes as the McArthurs prepare to appeal the ruling in court tomorrow.
He said: "Like most gay and equality campaigners, I initially condemned the Christian-run Ashers Bakery. Now I have changed my mind. Much as I wish to defend the gay community, I also want to defend freedom of conscience, expression and religion.
"While Christian bed and breakfast owners and civil partnership registrars were clearly wrong to deny service to gay people, this case is different. It is about the refusal to facilitate an idea - namely, support for same-sex marriage."
He added that although he does not support Ashers' Christian views on same-sex marriage, he now believes that Ashers refused to make the cake because of the message they were asked to ice on the cake and not because of Mr Lee's sexuality.
He explained: "I profoundly disagree with Ashers' opposition to same-sex love and marriage, and support protests against them. They claim to be Christians and followers of Jesus. Yet he never once condemned homosexuality. Moreover, discrimination is not a Christian value. Ashers' religious justifications are, to my mind, theologically unsound.
"Nevertheless, on reflection, the court was wrong to penalise Ashers and I was wrong to endorse its decision. It was a step too far.
"His request was not refused because he was gay but because of the message he wanted on the cake. There is no evidence that his sexuality was the reason Ashers declined his order." Tatchell believes if the verdict stands after the appeal, it could set a worrying precedent for businesses. He said: "This begs the question: Should a Muslim printer be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed or a Jewish one the words of a Holocaust denier? Will gay bakers have to accept orders for cakes with homophobic slurs?
"If the current Ashers verdict stands it could, for example, encourage far right extremists to demand that bakeries and other service providers facilitate the promotion of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim opinions. It would leave businesses unable to refuse to decorate cakes, print posters and emblazon mugs with bigoted messages."
Judge Brownlie had said that although she recognised the couple had a deeply-held religious belief, "they are in a business supplying services to all, however constituted. The law requires them to do just that, subject to the graphic being lawful and not contrary to the terms and conditions of the company."
Tatchell said that in his 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 discrimination against ideas and opinions."
A life of activism
1971 - Tatchell moved to London from Australia to avoid conscription into the Australian Army. He became a leading member of the Gay Liberation Front.
1981 - Selected as Labour Party Parliamentary candidate for Bermondsey. He was denounced by party leader Michael Foot for supporting extra-parliamentary action against the Thatcher government.
May 1990 - Tatchell is one of the founding members of radical gay rights group OutRage!
October 1999 - He attempted a citizen's arrest of Robert Mugabe as he claimed the leader of Zimbabwe had broken international human rights law.
March 2001 - Tatchell attempted to arrest Mugabe again. He was knocked unconscious by bodyguards and was left with permanent damage to his right eye.
May 2007 - He went to Moscow to support the Moscow Pride march. He was punched in the face and nearly knocked unconscious.
April 2008 - He disrupted the Olympic Torch relay through London ahead of the games in Beijing. He was protesting China's human rights record.
December 2009 - Tatchell said he was standing down from the Green Party due to brain damage from injuries.