The Christian Institute claim 8,000 people have signed a petition supporting Ashers Bakery.

The owners of Ashers Bakery in Belfast were found guilty of unlawful discrimination based on sexual orientation and political or religious grounds, after the company in Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland refused to bake a cake showing the message ‘Support Gay Marriage’ above an image of Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie.

Despite losing its initial case, the bakery owners are pursuing a legal appeal of the ruling which starts today (February 3) – with the company receiving financial and legal help from the Christian Institute.

Colin and Karen McArthur have also found an unlikely ally in veteran LGBT rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who says he has “changed his mind” on the issue, despite initially “endorsing the decision”.

Explaining his surprising decision to back the appeal, Mr Tatchell said that although he wished to support the LGBT community he also wanted “to defend freedom of conscience, expression and religion.”

His support was welcomed by The Christian Institute, who say a petition supporting the couple who own the bakery has received over 8,000 signatures.

The petition – titled “I support Ashers Baking Co and the McArthur family in their stand for freedom of speech and freedom of conscience” – is part of a campaign that has included support rallies across Northern Ireland.

The Christian Institute – who have been accused of using the controversy to promote their own cause – opposed the Equality Act and remains fundamentally opposed to anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people.

During a meeting of the group earlier this week, Simon Calvert, deputy director of the institute claimed “something has gone wrong” when people were being prosecute for “for holding to that simple view.”

Calvert also congratulated Mr Tatchell on his public rethink, saying the campaigner had “stood up in the past for the free speech rights of Christian street preachers.

“Now he is standing up for the rights of the McArthurs and we are grateful to him.”

The two-day hearing that starts today will seek to overturn the County Court ruling that Ashers had illegally discriminated on the grounds of political and sexual orientation.