A Belfast bakery could face court action for refusing to make a Sesame Street cake which celebrated gay marriage, because it conflicts with the owners' Christian beliefs.
The dispute began in May when Gareth Lee, a long-time gay rights activist with QueerSpace and the PCS Union, asked for the cake to be decorated with the familiar Bert and Ernie characters in an embrace, with the slogan 'Support Gay Marriage'.
Same-sex unions are illegal in Northern Ireland, and were recently voted down by the Northern Ireland Assembly for the third time in two years.
But the McArthur family, who own Ashers Baking Company in Belfast, refused to make the cake because of the family's religious belief, and offered a refund.
But the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland has now ruled the bakery had acted unlawfully by refusing to decorate the cake with the slogan, breaching equality laws which outlaw discrimination in the provision of goods and services.
The Commission said in the letter to the business that it "looked forward to receiving your proposals to remedy your unlawful discrimination against Mr Lee within seven days".
The manager of the business, Daniel McArthur, said in a statement released through the Christian Institute: “We are Christians and our Christianity reaches to every point of our lives, whether that’s at home or in the day-to-day running of the business.
“We thought that this order was at odds with our beliefs, certainly was in contradiction with what the Bible teaches.”
“Although we have found this experience certainly unsettling and disruptive to our day-to-day business, we are certainly convinced that we have made the right decision, and we continue to take the stance that we do take."
The company is named after a verse from the Bible which says “Bread from Asher shall be rich and he shall yield royal dainties."
The Christian Institute is funding the company's legal fees to challenge the ruling. The Institute’s Director, Colin Hart, said: “This is a sign of things to come exactly as we predicted.
“The Government repeatedly failed to listen to members of the public, lawyers, constitutional experts even its own MPs when they called for safeguards to protect those who back traditional marriage, whether at work or in business.
“All the McArthurs want is to run their bakery according to their Christian beliefs. There won’t be many situations where they need to turn down an order but this is obviously one of them. No one should be forced to use their creative skills to promote a cause which goes against their consciences. Imbalanced equality laws are making it increasingly hard for people, especially Christians.
“Imagine the uproar if the Equality Commission said that an environmentally-conscious baker had to produce a cake saying “Support fracking”? Or if they threatened a feminist bakery for refusing to print a “Sharia for UK” cake?
“Millions of ordinary people who do not agree with gay marriage, face intimidation and the real threat of legal action from the forces of political correctness if they, out of conscience, decline to provide goods or services to campaign groups they do not agree with or support.
“It establishes a dangerous precedent about the power of the state over an individual or business to force them to go against their deeply held beliefs.”
Lee could not be reached for comment, but photographs from the group's Facebook page dated from May show that the group did manage to get a cake made in the design they chose.