As Irish citizens prepare to vote on same-sex-marriage, the southern Equality Tribunal has begun to process a complaint against a Drogheda printers which refused to produce invitations for a civil partnership ceremony.
The Christian-owned Beulah Print and Design company in Co Louth confirmed in March that it had declined an order from Jonathon Brennan, one of their former customers.
The news of the Equality Tribunal action comes on the eve of an historic referendum in the Republic on whether to legalise same sex marriage.
And it comes right after a landmark decision in Northern Ireland in which a Christian owned bakery in Belfast, Ashers, was found to have unlawfully discriminated against a gay man when it refused to produce a cake with a gay marriage slogan.
Mike O’Leary of Beulah Print and Design told the News Letter: “The complaint has been made against us under the equal status Act. The first step is that we will be invited to mediation. One of the Equality Officers would be appointed to the case and having investigated us would make a legally binding judgment.
“We were advised that the customer had made an official complaint six weeks ago. We responded that we were not discriminating against him on the grounds of his sexuality but that in good conscience we could not complete the work we were being asked to do.
“If we cannot settle on amicable terms then an equality officer will make a decision on the case.”
He said the company faces a fine of up to 15,000 Euro if they are found guilty of discrimination.
The Irish Department of Justice responded that it “cannot comment on any specific case that is or might be before a court or Tribunal”.
Paddy Monaghan, a spokesman for a group of 100 evangelical Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostal church leaders, slammed the action.
He said: “As a group we stand 100pc behind Beulah. They don’t discriminate against gay clients, whom they have served for many years. It is only when they are being asked to produce something which goes against their conscience that they refused the client.
“They had served the people taking the case against them for many years with no problems until this. It is just like the Ashers case in Belfast. They did not object to the sexuality of the customer. They only objected when they felt they were being asked to go against their consciences.”
But Richard O’Leary, of the Faith in Marriage Equality campaign group, insisted there are adequate legal protections for Christians and wider society in the south.
“This is what happens when someone believes they are being discriminated against,” he said. “Our laws allow them to take their case through a formal process.
“The judge will then adjudicate on the case.
“I think the laws are adequate in the south. I don’t think there is an issue for Christians or wider society to be concerned.
“There is no need for a DUP-style conscience clause in the south. When individual cases come up, a judge can reach a decision based on the merits of each case.”
In March Mr Brennan, who owns the Avenue Hair and Beauty salon in Drogheda, said he was refused by the printers for the first time when it came to his civil partnership invites.
“I did not know what to say. I was dumbfounded,” the stylist said.
Mr Brennan is due to enter a civil partnership with his partner of eight years, John Kierans, in August.
Mike O’Leary, one of the co-owners of Beulah Print, defended the decision not to print the invites, citing his Christian beliefs, and said that it is not the first time the company has refused to take orders from same-sex couples.
“We have turned down other classes of work that we’d not be happy to print - mainly things that are borderline pornographic,” he said.
Mr Brennan added: “This is all a whirlwind. I’m horrified. I’m so disappointed that this has taken place in modern Ireland, especially now coming up to the vote on equality.
“We’ve been together eight years and we’ve never come across an instance like this. We are hurt and we are very angry.”
In a statement, the printers added: “We, at Beulah Print, are Bible-believing Christians who are committed to standing by our conscience and God’s Word.
“We have been in business for 12 years during which time we have held to our convictions and have at times declined a variety of work which we felt was clearly contrary to our beliefs.
“We have never hidden our faith from our customers and represent the gospel at every opportunity.
“We are not against homosexuals, however, we do not support same sex marriage, which printing wedding invitations would do.”