A Co Antrim run bakery which refused to bake a cake with a message supporting gay marriage has been warned by the North's Equality Commission that it could face prosecution.
The Christian-run company, Ashers Baking Company would not take the order for the cake which was to feature the Sesame Street puppets, Bert and Ernie with their arms around one another.
The slogan on the cake was to state “Support Gay Marriage” and feature the logo of Queerspace”, a gay, bisexual and transgender volunteer organisation based in Belfast.
The Equality Commission confirmed today that it is supporting a complainant whose cake order was refused by Ashers. The company could face prosecution for allegedly being in breach of the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations Northern Ireland 2006 which deals with the provision of goods, services and facilities.
“In this case the commission has granted assistance to the complainant, and has written to the company concerned on his behalf. The commission will consider any response before taking further action,” said a spokesman for the Equality Commission.
Ashers in turn is being supported by the British Christian Institute.
Ashers’ 24-year-old general manager Daniel McArthur told the institute that they were happy to bake cakes for anyone, but could not fulfil that particular order as it clashed with the ethos of the business. He said that the order was placed in May in its Belfast shop and referred to its head office.
“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,” he said
“We thought that this order was at odds with our beliefs, certainly was in contradiction with what the Bible teaches,” he added.
“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”, said Mr McArthur.
He said the customer was offered a full refund which was collected shortly after the order was refused. “We thought that was the end of it, but approximately six weeks later we received a letter from the Equality Commission. The Equality Commission’s letter said that we had discriminated against the customer on the grounds of his sexual orientation,” he said.
The company is named after a verse from Genesis in the Bible which says, “Bread from Asher shall be rich and he shall yield royal dainties.”
Ashers, which was established in Newtownabbey in 1992 has six shops and employs 62 people.
The Christian Institute's legal defence fund is supporting Ashers. Its director Colin Hart said all the McArthurs wanted to do was "to run their bakery according to their Christian beliefs".
He added, “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.”
Alliance North Down councillor Andrew Muir, supporting the Equality Commission's action, said the cake was to be produced for an International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia that he hosted when mayor of North Down. He said another bakery in Bangor stepped in and baked the Bert and Ernie cake.
Three times in the past two years the Northern Assembly has rejected proposals calling for the legalisation of same sex marriage. "It is ridiculous for this bakery to suggest that they would have to endorse the campaign," said Mr Muir.
“For Northern Ireland to prosper and overcome our divisions we need a new society where businesses are willing to cater for all, regardless of religious views, political opinion, disability, race, age, sexual orientation, marital status, gender and other backgrounds,” he added.