A Christian-run bakery in the U.K. could be facing a court case after it refused a request from a customer to make a cake featuring the "Sesame Street" characters Bert and Ernie with a slogan to "support gay marriage."
Ashers Baking Company in Belfast declined the order from the customer, a gay rights activist, but now mat face legal action from watchdog group Equality Commission, BBC News reported on Tuesday.
In a statement, the 24-year-old general manager of the Christian bakery said that the order, featuring portraits of the two puppets side by side alongside the logo of gay rights group QueerSpace, went against their religious convictions.
"The directors and myself looked at it and considered it and thought that this order was at odds with our beliefs," Daniel McArthur revealed.
"It certainly was at odds with what the Bible teaches, and on the following Monday we rang the customer to let him know that we couldn't take his order."
The bakery then gave a full refund to the customer, but six weeks later it received a letter from the Equality Commission, which argued that the bakery discriminated against the customer on the grounds of his sexual orientation.
Ashers then turned to The Christian Institute for legal assistance, noting that the Equality Commission's letter threatened to pursue legal proceedings.
"I feel if we don't take a stand on this here case, then how can we stand up against it, further down the line?" McArthur added, and revealed that in the past, the bakery has also turned down orders that featured pornographic images and offensive language.
"I would like the outcome of this to be that, any Christians running a business could be allowed to follow their Christian beliefs and principles in the day-to-day running of their business and that they are allowed to make decisions based on that."
Equality Commission has said that it will consider the bakery's response before it takes any further action.
Northern Ireland is now the only part of the U.K. which does not have legalized same-sex marriage.
Christian Institute's chief executive Colin Hart criticized the government for failing to listen to the public and place safeguards for those who support traditional marriage, especially those in the private sector.
"Now this nonsense, more usually associated with the public sector, is being applied to the private sector," Hart said, according to The Telegraph.
"This means 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 good 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."
There have been similar cases in the U.S. in recent months, with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruling in May against a Christian cake maker who refused to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple, because of the baker's Christian beliefs. The Commission argued that anyone doing business in Colorado cannot discriminate against others.
Bert and Ernie, two of "Sesame Street's" most popular characters, have been used as a symbol for gay marriage before, although the TV show categorically denies that they have such a relationship.
After magazine The New Yorker used a painting of the two puppets getting affectionate to celebrate the Supreme Court's 2013 ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act in favor of gay marriage, Sesame Workshop addressed the question about Bert and Ernie's sexual orientation in a statement:
"Bert and Ernie are best friends," the statement read. "They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most Sesame Street Muppets™ do), they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation."