The Equality Commission in Northern Ireland has confirmed it is to take legal action against a Christian run bakery over the firm’s refusal to bake a cake promoting gay marriage.

Family-run Ashers Baking Company said it had refused to bake the cake ordered by a gay activist because it was at odds with its Christian beliefs.

The cake was to feature an image of Sesame Street puppets Bert and Ernie below the motto Support Gay Marriage.

Solicitors acting for the bakery maintained that their clients were not acting unlawfully.

The commission has said it is pursuing legal action as the case raises issues of public importance, regarding the extent to which suppliers of goods and services can refuse service on the grounds of sexual orientation, religious belief and political opinion.

A spokesman for the Equality Commission said: "In its letter the Commission stated that they would prefer not to have to litigate these issues and sought an acknowledgement that there has been an unlawful breach of the equality laws and an assurance that this will not be repeated.

It made clear that the claimant will be seeking only modest damages for the upset and inconvenience caused and that, failing this, a civil bill will be issued.

"The commission has now received a response from the company's solicitors stating that their view remains unchanged that their clients have not acted unlawfully, confirming they have no further proposals to make on their clients behalf and that they will accept service of a civil bill in regard to this matter.

"The Commission will be issuing a civil bill in this case and a decision as to whether or not discrimination has occurred will be a matter for the court."