A U.K. priest has said he will stop engaging with groups from the gay community following the filing of a civil action against a Christian-owned bakery firm that refused to make a pro-gay marriage cake featuring the "Sesame Street" characters Bert and Ernie in July.
"I will be writing today to those groups from the gay community — with whom I have had a very constructive and ongoing engagement in recent years — to say that I'm withdrawing my engagement until the rights of all people, in this case Christians, and freedom of conscience is vindicated and respected by the Equality Commission and the gay community," Fr. Tim Bartlett told BBC.
Bartlett, a member of the Catholic Council for Social Affairs, participated on the panel of this year's Belfast Pride event. He insisted, however, that civil action by the Equality Commission against Ashers Baking Company is a violation of people's right to freedom of conscience.
The case concerns the Christian-run company in Belfast, which in July declined an order from a gay rights activist who wanted the bakers to make a cake with the popular children's show characters, including the slogan "support gay marriage."
Daniel McArthur, the general manager of the Christian bakery, said at the time that "the directors and myself looked at it and considered it and thought that this order was at odds with our beliefs."
"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," he added.
Despite the customer being issued a full refund, the bakery received a letter from the Equality Commission, which argued that the company discriminated against the customer on the grounds of his sexual orientation.
Bert and Ernie have been used as a symbol for gay marriage before, notably when The New Yorker used a drawing of them to celebrate the Supreme Court's 2013 ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act that went in favor of gay marriage, but "Sesame Street" has categorically denied that the characters are in a same-sex relationship.
Some gay rights groups, including John O'Doherty of the Rainbow Project, have said that they are disappointed with Bartlett's comments.
"I think it's very disappointing, I think rather than being a reason to stop conversations, it further indicates the needs for conversation," O'Doherty said.
"There are fundamental issues that need to be addressed and these need to be discussed, the answer isn't to walk away and say until you agree with me I'm not going to bother talking to you."
The Equality Commission has said that the case "raises issues of public importance regarding the extent to which suppliers of goods and services can refuse service on grounds of sexual orientation, religious belief and political opinion."
McArthur argued on The Christian Institute website, which is providing the company legal counsel, that the Commission is pursuing the bakery because of the owners' support for traditional marriage.
"It feels like a David and Goliath battle because on one hand we have the Equality Commission who are a public body, they're funded by taxpayers' money, they have massive resources at their disposal, whereas we are a small family business and we have limited resources at our disposal," he said.
"We're continuing to hold to the stand that we took originally, because we believe it's biblical, we believe it's what God would want us to do, and we also think that if we do cave in to the Equality Commission at this point, it'll put pressure on other citizens who are defending their view of traditional marriage."