The head of Northern Ireland’s Equality Commission has defended spending more than £250,000 of taxpayers’ money supporting a gay rights activist in his legal challenge against Ashers Bakery.
Dr Michael Wardlow was speaking after the Christian owners of the Belfast bakery yesterday won an appeal at the UK’s highest court over a finding that they discriminated against Gareth Lee by refusing to make a cake decorated with the words “Support Gay Marriage”.
The five judges on the Supreme Court in London were unanimous in their judgment in what has become widely known as the ‘gay cake case’.
The ruling follows the latest round of legal action brought against family-run Ashers Bakery by Mr Lee, who won his case initially in the county court and then at the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal.
Around £500,000 has been spent to date on the landmark case – £250,000 by the Christian Institute to fund the McArthurs’ appeal and a further £250,000 spent by the Equality Commission to advocate for Mr Lee.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph last night, Dr Wardlow rejected calls from a number of politicians to quit.
“People are genuinely entitled to make whatever calls they want but I am not considering resigning at the minute,” he said.
Defending the commission’s role in spending considerable sums of public money pursuing the case, he said: “This was over four-and-a-half years and represents less than 20% of our overall budget.
“In terms of how we spend public money, we are very prudent and in this case we believe that it was important to support Gareth.”
Dr Wardlow confirmed that Mr Lee is now weighing up his options regarding taking the case further with a possible appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
“At this stage Gareth hasn’t made his mind up yet about what he is going to do next.
“It is up to him to decide the next course of action and he has a number of options available to him which he will now consider with his barrister,” he said.
The controversy first flared when Mr Lee, a member of the LGBT advocacy group QueerSpace, walked into Ashers on Royal Avenue in May 2014.
He ordered the £36.50 cake featuring Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie for a private function marking International Day Against Homophobia.
His order was accepted and paid for in full, but two days later the company called to say it could not proceed due to the message requested.
The DUP’s Ian Paisley has written to Secretary of State Karen Bradley asking her to review how the publicly funded body spends its money after it confirmed the bill for pursuing the Ashers case over more than four years.
The North Antrim MP said: “The Equality Commission have got to seriously examine why they allocated so much time and public resources to this case when it was so unceremoniously dumped by the Supreme Court.”
UUP MLA for South Antrim Steve Aiken also said “serious questions” needed to be asked about the use of public money by the commission.
TUV leader Jim Allister and the DUP’s Jim Wells have both called on Dr Wardlow to consider his position, accusing him of “wasting taxpayers’ money pursuing Ashers”.
Announcing the Supreme Court’s decision yesterday, its president Lady Hale said: “This conclusion is not in any way to diminish the need to protect gay people and people who support gay marriage from discrimination.
“It is deeply humiliating, and an affront to human dignity, to deny someone a service because of that person’s race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion or belief.
“But that is not what happened in this case.”
The court also said Mr Lee had no claim against Ashers on the grounds of religious belief or political opinion.
Ashers Bakery owners Daniel and Amy McArthur said that they were “delighted and relieved” by the ruling, which they said “protects freedom of speech and freedom of conscience for everyone”.
They also said that Mr Lee would “always be welcome in any of our shops”.
However, Mr Lee expressed his concern at the decision, saying: “I’m concerned not just for the implications for myself and other gay people, but for every single one of us.”
The Rainbow Project gay advocacy group said the case had done damage to Northern Ireland’s gay community.