Ashers Bakery petition tops 8,000 as 'gay cake' appeal looms

A petition supporting a Christian bakery in Northern Ireland has received more than 8,000 signatures just ten days after it was launched.

Daniel and Amy McArthur, owners of Ashers Baking Company, received the online support after they found themselves at the centre of an international storm in Summer 2014 when they refused to produce a cake with a "support gay marriage" slogan.

Daniel McArthur, 26, the General Manager of Ashers, with his wife Amy, 26, together with their children Robyn, aged three, and one-year-old Elia.The Christian Institute

They faced a legal challenge after Gareth Lee, member of the LGBT group Queerspace who ordered the cake, claimed the McArthur's refusal amounted to discrimination under laws which prohibit the refusal of services on the grounds of religion, race or sexual orientation.

The couple were fined £500 after Judge Isobel Brownlie ruled their decision did amount to discrimination. She said they did not have the right to "manifest" their faith in a commercial setting.

However thousands have voiced their support for the couple online, signing a statement which read, "I support Ashers Baking Co and the McArthur family in their stand for freedom of speech and freedom of conscience."

In addition nearly 500 people attended a "Stand with Ashers" rally in Craigavon, Co Armagh last night to demonstrate their support.

The couple's legal team at the Christian Institute launched the petition on 23 January to galvanise support ahead of an appeal which will be heard on Wednesday and Thursday.

"Something has gone wrong, when good people like the McArthurs are being hauled before the courts just for holding to that simple view," said Simon Calvert, deputy director of the Christian Institute at the Craigavon meeting. 

"People must be free to manifest genuine, reasonable moral and religious convictions without fear of unfair discrimination and mistreatment."

The couple, who have two young children, said they had received hate mail, online abuse and occasional vandalism of their bakery after their refusal.

However, Daniel McArthur said they had no regrets and would make the same stance again, according to the Telegraph.

Rather than discriminating against Lee, McArthur said they were being discriminated against because they were forbidden from refusing to endorse same-sex marriage.

"It is like something out of a science fiction book: 'you have to do this, there is no choice... you must do this, no matter what your conscience tells you, no matter how hard, never mind that you couldn't do that, you have to do it we demand it of you'," he said.

"I'm sure that affects many other religions as well... but [our faith affects] every part of our lives. It is impossible for us not to bring it with us during the day."

McArthur added: "It is our human right to live according to those beliefs and we can't do something that goes against those beliefs, we can't be forced to do it.

"That is basically what the Equality Commission expect us to do, they expect us to go against our Christian beliefs despite how we feel."

Both the McArthurs said that despite the scrutiny and hate mail, the experience had been positive and they would make the same stand again.

Daniel and Amy McArthur with Colin and Karen McArthur outside Belfast County CourtThe Christian Institute

"To be honest we have been really surprised by how much support we had through it," said Daniel.

"When it first started we were slightly worried ourselves, we didn't know what way the general public was going to take to it.

"But it has been overwhelming the amount of people who have gone out of their way either to write letters or visit our shops to support us in a whole variety of ways."

Amy added: "There is a bit of pressure. I know we've been called many things.

"We have been called bigots and it seems to be at the minute that if you disagree politely with gay marriage then you are named as a bigot or a homophobe and that's not what we are at all."

But she said the experience overall had "absolutely been positive".

"If someone said could we turn back time and would we do it all again we would say absolutely. It has been a real time of blessing for us, God has really strengthened our faith in him and answered our prayers and strengthened our marriage and our love for each other and we have been really supported and blessed by the Christian community."

News of the petition's success comes after prominent gay rights activist Peter Tatchell became a surprise supporter of the McArthurs, announcing his change of position in an article for the Guardian.

"Much as I wish to defend the gay community, I also want to defend freedom of conscience, expression and religion," he wrote.

Tatchell said that while he "profoundly disagree[s] with Ashers' opposition to same-sex love and marriage, and support[s] protests against them", the court was wrong to penalise them. Judge Brownlie's ruling "sets a worrying precedent", he added.

"The law suit against the bakery was well-intended. It sought to challenge homophobia. But it was a step too far," Tatchell said.