A Northern Ireland bakery has been contacted by the government and is facing legal action after it refused to create a cake with an image of Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie and the words "support gay marriage" on the icing.  There has long been controversy surrounding the sexual orientation of the Sesame Street characters, which whilst an interesting point, isn't exactly the issue here. 

Bert and Ernie
Ernie and Bert have sparked debate in Northern Ireland.

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Ashers Baking Co. in Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland received the order from gay rights group Queerspace but cancelled it, citing the owner's religious beliefs as the reason they would not make the cake. As the Mail reports, the incident occurred in May and has been an ongoing dispute. 

The bakery, according to the Telegraph, claimed QueerSpace would be using the cake as a means to campaign for gay marriage in Northern Ireland, something which the bakery's owner does not believe in. Gay marriage is not legal in Northern Ireland, despite the leaps forward in equality throughout the rest of the UK over the last few years.

A letter was sent to the bakery by a government agency, the Equality Commission, and it warns the company that not printing the icing would be discriminatory against the sexual orientation of Gareth Lee, the man who placed the order. The bakery has been given seven days to remedy the situation or it will face legal action and be called to court by the agency. 

The Christian Institute has responded in support of the bakery and said that the company's decision to refuse the order was not discriminatory. They argued the cake would be endorsing a political campaign, which the bakery did not want to be a part of. 

So, why have two children's characters, Bert and Ernie, seemingly prompted an equality debate in Northern Ireland? 

Ernie and Bert
Are Ernie and Bert romantically involved?

Although the bakery is presumably not offended by the use of Bert and Ernie - one suspects the gay marriage slogan may be more concerning - the incident has raised an interesting question. Namely, are Bert and Ernie gay?

The characters first appeared in 1969 on a pilot episode of the much beloved children's show Sesame Street. The pair lives together and they share a bedroom, although they do have separate beds. They do appear to spend every waking moment together and their nature of their relationship has been widely speculated about in popular culture. 

Sesame Street studio, as Cowra Guardian reports, denied Bert and Ernie were representative of a gay couple in 2007. They said "[Bert and Ernie] are not gay, they are not straight, they are puppets. They do not exist below the waist." In 2011, the studio further addressed the issue stating Bert and Ernie "were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most Sesame Street Muppets do), they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation."

The only issue is other Jim Henson puppet characters, such as Miss Piggy and Kermit, are overtly heterosexual and their romantic relationship is evident. It stands to reason that Bert and Ernie have the potential of being a couple simply because other characters evidently "exist below the waist."Jim Henson studios may have to seriously revaluate their attitude towards how they define a romantic relationship.

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Miss PiggyIn a recent Muppets film, Miss Piggy finally married Kermit.