An equality chief has been blasted for suggesting that if Christian-run businesses don't follow the law and serve homosexuals they should consider closing.
Michael Wardlow, the head of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, sparked anger after stating in a newspaper interview: "If someone here in Northern Ireland is running an establishment as a person of faith and is compelled against their will but by law to serve an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) person then that can hardly be said to be persecution.
"I can understand how they might feel in their Christian conscience that that is a difficult thing. Well, I would then say either look at the law or maybe that is not the business they should be in."
The Equality Commission is taking landmark legal action against Ashers Baking Co. because they refused to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan and the court case is listed to start next week in Belfast.
Mr Wardlow, himself a Christian, told The Guardian: "If you read the Bible, all 66 books, from beginning to end, it seems to be one of the pieces of the architecture that holds it together is that God created man and woman in his image as equal. For people of faith to say equality is not at the core of what they do, then they are not reading the same Bible as me."
Mr Wardlow believes the Ashers court case will, finally, help clarify the law regarding how faith-based firms must treat customers equally regardless of their sexuality, religion or politics.
Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister said he was alarmed by the comments and if Christians are to be "driven from businesses" then it's persecution.
Mr Allister said: "Mr Wardlow's remarks only serve to underscore the reality that the so-called equality agenda has gone much too far.
"If the law is such that Christians should think of leaving the business world then the law is wrong. Does he want to see a society where someone with strongly held religious convictions cannot be a baker, a printer or indeed a florist or wedding photographer?"
Colin Hart, director of The Christian Institute, said: "Michael Wardlow seems to suggest that Christians should shut up shop if they don't agree with the commission's interpretation of the law. There are actors who can only play one part and the Equality Commission are in danger of becoming a one-trick pony.
"They see everything in terms of equal outcomes.
"But that can never work with free speech. Freedom of speech is currently alive and well in Northern Ireland. But the Equality Commission are putting this in jeopardy. If they get their way and a legal precedent is set, people will lose their freedom of speech. We'll end up with atheists suing Muslim printers for not printing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. And Christian film companies will be sued by pornographers when they turn down their business."
The story so far
The case of a controversial cake has started a debate in Northern Ireland about rights, identity and values. The Equality Commission's lawsuit against Ashers Baking Company is due to be heard in the High Court. The Christian owners of the business refused a request to bake a cake bearing a slogan in support of gay marriage. The DUP has put forward legislation designed to prevent such a case happening again.