The Northern Ireland Office has promised to consult the public on religious protections in relation to same sex marriage in Northern Ireland.
The response came after a Christian campaign group this morning threatened legal action against Secretary of State Julian Smith if the government did not carry over protections already existing in GB into Northern Ireland.
Christian Institute Deputy Director Simon Calvert has said that concerns have been heightened after the recent decriminisation of abortion in Northern Ireland, which leaves the Province in a much more liberal legal position than GB on that issue.
CI issued a statement this morning saying that a Belfast legal firm acting for it had written to the Secretary of State, saying that unless protections are forthcoming, CI will “look to challenge by way of judicial review any failure to reflect the balanced treatment of the issues in a manner reflected in the same-sex marriage legislation in England & Wales and Scotland”.
Just before 5pm today the NIO issued a fresh line in response to the CI threat.
It said: “In terms of religious same-sex marriage, as the SoSNI announced in Parliament in October, a public consultation on the issue of religious same-sex marriage and protection of religious freedoms in Northern Ireland is being prepared for intended publication, subject to confirmation by an incoming Government.”
The NIO added: “Parliament passed legislation which requires the Government to put in place legislation to allow for same sex marriage and opposite sex civil partnership in Northern Ireland by 13 January 2020. We are working to meet this deadline.”
Mr Calvert gave a guarded welcome to the comment.
“We welcome the fact that the Northern Ireland Office is now at least talking about the need for religious protections,” he said. “However, what we really need is a clear guarantee that all the protections in GB will be mirrored in Northern Ireland.”
The CI position has been strongly backed - with some qualifications - by the Rainbow Project, Amnesty International and LGBT campaigner Peter Tatchell.
Last year the CI backed Ashers Bakery in Belfast in winning an appeal at the Supreme Court against a finding that it had discriminated against a customer when it refused to provide a cake with a gay marriage slogan.