Waterfront Hall overwhelmed as Christians close ranks round embattled Ashers Bakery boss
Hundreds of people including three senior DUP politicians had to be refused entry to a full-to-capacity Waterfront Hall in Belfast last night as thousands of Christians turned up for a rally in support of the Newtownabbey bakery firm which is going to court to defend their refusal to bake a cake for a gay activist.
Former ministers Sammy Wilson and Edwin Poots joined the current Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey in a crowd which sang hymns outside the Waterfront as inside, Daniel McArthur, the manager of the Ashers Baking Company, vowed that he and his family would not back down in the dispute over his family's decision to cancel an order for a cake because of a request for it to be decorated with a slogan supporting gay marriage.
Queues of motorists trying to find a car parking space near the Waterfront were tailed back over the Queen's Bridge as people from all over Northern Ireland arrived for the rally, including five busloads from Fermanagh whose passengers couldn't get in.
Officials from the Christian Institute, who are supporting the McArthur family's legal action at Belfast County Court, had to close the hall before the rally was due to start because all seats were taken. Deputy director Simon Calvert apologised to the hundreds of people who were refused admission and there were cheers as he explained that the support had overwhelmed the hall's limits.
Dozens of people packed into a bar upstairs at the Waterfront as the speeches were relayed from the main auditorium but it wasn't possible to feed the sound to the crowd outside.
Instead they took up a collection for the McArthurs' defence fund and in just over half an hour they raised more than £3,000.
TV cameras weren't allowed inside the Waterfront to record the addresses from lawyers, opponents of gay marriage and Christian Institute officials who were backing Mr McArthur and his parents Colin and Karen who started Ashers bakery 23 years ago.
Hazelmary Bull, who was prosecuted for refusing to allow a gay couple to sleep together in her Cornish guesthouse, was also there. She said she had received death threats over her stance but, supporting the McArthurs, she said: "Christians have to stand up and be counted."
Christian Institute lawyer Sam Webster said people across the UK were praying for a positive outcome to the case.
He said the implications for businesses as a result of the Ashers ruling could be far-reaching.
The Equality Commission is bringing a civil action against the Ashers, accusing them of acting unlawfully and discriminating against gay marriage campaigner Gareth Lee on the grounds of his sexual orientation which the firm are denying. 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." The case is expected to last two days but it's anticipated that a judgment will be reserved.