"Sesame Street" icons Bert and Ernie are at the center of a gay rights controversy again, but this time it's across the pond.
A Northern Ireland bakery is facing legal action for refusing to bake a cake featuring the famous Muppet duo underneath the words, “Support Gay Marriage.”
In the spring, a gay rights activist placed the order to Ashers Baking Company for an event marking International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. But the bakery declined, saying the message was “at odds” with its owners’ Christian beliefs.
Now, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland says the bakery must pay a fine for violating the country’s anti-discrimination laws, or go to court.
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"It feels like a David and Goliath battle,” Daniel McArthur, general manager of Ashers Baking Company, told Sky News. "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."
The case mirrors one in Colorado, where a baker refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because of his religious belief that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. That bakery owner ended up losing in court, having violated the state’s non-discrimination law. But the case became a flashpoint in the debate over whether rapidly expanding civil rights for gay and lesbian Americans would infringe on individuals’ religious freedom.
Ireland is not among the 17 countries that have legalized marriage equality. But voters will have the chance to change that next year when they weigh a referendum expanding civil marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples. Sixty-seven percent said they would vote in favor of the measure, according to the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll.
As for Bert and Ernie, well, they’re no strangers to mixed reactions about their relationship. In 2011, the Sesame Street Workshop shot down a petition calling for the two to get married, saying in a statement that “they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.” Two years later, The New Yorker featured an illustration of Bert and Ernie cuddling on the sofa to mark the landmark Supreme Court case overturning a provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA,) which prevented federal recognition of same-sex nuptials. That cover also sparked a backlash.