Today’s ruling in favour of a Christian woman who wanted to opt out of performing civil partnership ceremonies because she feels they go against her religion has alarmed the National Secular Society.

An employment tribunal ruled that Lillian Ladele was discriminated against on the grounds of her Christian faith and suffered harassment.

“It is an important case, which may have a wider impact than the dispute between the parties,” the tribunal said, adding it accepts that it would be “wrong for one set of rights to trump another.”

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said:

“This is a catastrophic judgment not just for gay people but for the wider community.

“It appears to place the religious “conscience” of registrars above their legal duty to carry out parliament’s legislation.

“Ms Ladele now seems to have won the right to be exempt from some of her duties on the grounds that she is a Christian.

“Putting religious rights and gay rights under the same legal umbrella when they are incompatible was bound eventually to lead to this confrontation.

“This decision appears to show that religious rights trump gay rights and that should leave gay people quaking in their boots.

“If it sets a precedent, this entirely wrong decision will have major implications for the Government’s equality and human rights agenda. This raises all kinds of implications far beyond the gay community.

“What other duties will religious people now claim exemption from?”

Mr Sanderson said there have already been cases of pharmacists refusing to sell contraception on religious grounds and supermarket check-out attendants refusing to handle alcohol or pork products.