Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders have come together in opposition to the Equality Commission case against Ashers Bakery.
Two evangelical lobby groups — the Christian Institute and the Evangelical Alliance — spoke out strongly in opposition
But there was equally firm support from the Catholic church, with senior priest Fr Tim Bartlett going as far as to say that he was breaking off contact with gay groups until the rights of all people are respected “by the Equality Commission and the gay community”.
Peter Lynas, the Northern Ireland director of the Evangelical Alliance, said the decision to pursue the case to court was “very worrying”.
He said: “Having taken further legal advice the commission now claims Ashers are guilty of religious and political discrimination as well as the original grounds of sexual orientation.
“This should concern everyone, not just Christians – it is a challenge to the very fabric of Northern Ireland society.
“We are talking about the loss of religious and political freedom. This is an attempt to privatise religion and exclude it from the public square.
“The commission is deciding which political and religious views are acceptable and which are not.”
He added that as the commission was itself campaigning in favour of gay marriage it was “no longer neutral on this issue”.
Fr Bartlett said: “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 am withdrawing my engagement until the right of all people, in this case Christians, to freedom of conscience is vindicated and respected by the Equality Commission and the gay community.
“I also want to know why the chief commissioner of the Equality Commission (Michael Wardlow) talked quite openly about the Ashers case during the Gay Pride debate in Belfast but has since claimed he is not free to talk about it in public debate.”
Former Presbyterian Moderator the Rev Norman Hamilton issued a statement on behalf of the denomination which said it was a “deeply regrettable failure of civic leadership by the Equality Commission”.
The Rev Hamilton, whose church invited Dr Wardlow to address a conference on equality last month, said: “Such an apparent decision by the Equality Commission is not only very unhelpful in the particular situation in question, but it potentially undermines and shuts down the kind of respectful wider debate and discussions that are necessary.”