A coalition of Christian groups has been granted permission to seek a judicial review regarding new gay equality laws in Northern Ireland.
The Christian Institute has led calls to delay the Sexual Orientation Regulations, due in Northern Ireland next month, claiming they were rushed through and constitute an attack on freedom of conscience.
The High Court has now granted permission for the groups to apply for a judicial review, it will be looked at by Mr Justice Deeny later this week.
The Christian Institute, along with other religious groups, has challenged Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain to withdraw the new gay equality laws.
The Institute is launching a judicial review because it believes the law interferes with religious freedom.
Colin Hart, Director of the Christian Institute, said: “The Regulations bear all the hallmarks of a rushed time-scale. They almost appear to establish a right for homosexuals not to be disagreed with. They would cover a conversation in a Christian bookshop or a pastoral conversation with a church minister.
“The homosexual harassment provision is so broadly drafted that it nullifies what partial exemptions churches are given. A minister can say to a practising homosexual (as he would an adulterer), ‘I’m sorry, you can’t be a member of my church until you repent and turn to Christ,’ but his explanation could be the subject of a harassment claim if the individual is offended. A teacher who says that sex is only for marriage could be accused of harassment by a pupil sympathetic to gay rights – and this would also apply to denominational schools.”
It follows opposition from within the Democratic Unionist Party to the law, although a Northern Ireland Assembly vote on the issue was tied earlier this week.
The law is also reported to have caused a rift in the UK Cabinet. As the Northern Ireland Assembly is suspended, decisions about the province are taken by the Secretary of State, Mr Hain. He has imposed tough rules, with no exemptions for religious groups.
Meanwhile, the introduction of regulations has been delayed in England and Wales until April by Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly, some believe she intends to grant exemptions.
Last week, gay charity Stonewall’s Alan Wardle called on the gay community to get behind the new laws to stop any religious exemptions.
The churches and Christian charities taking the legal action are, The Christian Institute; The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland; The Congregational Union of Ireland; The Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ireland; The Association of Baptist Churches in Ireland; The Fellowship of Independent Methodist Churches; and Christian Camping International (a Christian charity specialising in camping and conferences).
The new Regulations outlaw discrimination in the provision of goods, services and education on the grounds of sexual orientation. Fines range between £500 and £15,000 but up to £25,000 for repeated breaches.