New planning regulations to protect churches have been tabled by the Environment Minister.
Mark H Durkan wants to address a loophole that means places of worship can be dramatically altered if they are in use.
He said: “For the last 40 years or so we have relied upon the custodians of these buildings to do the right thing and protect this important resource.
“They have largely done this very well but there have been cases where important parts of our heritage have been lost or, more unfortunately, degraded by ill-informed changes.
“The view of the department, based upon recent research, is that it is now time for a change.”
The move would bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK where special planning permission, Listed Building Consent, is required for changes that might alter the architectural or historic interest of a building being used for ecclesiastical purposes.
It would mean the planning authority would have to pay due regard to its character when considering proposals.
The Department of the Environment will also publish guidance on changes to such listed buildings and the consideration of liturgical requirements by planning authorities.
Mr Durkan added: “Churches and other places of worship are among our most prominent and important listed buildings. In every village and town, and across the rural area, they stand as witness to our religious heritage.
“They are also among our most beautiful places with huge effort often put into their location, design and decoration.
“Since the early 1970s, the Department of the Environment has worked to identify and record this legacy. The best parts have been formally designated as listed buildings.
“However, the normal controls associated with such a designation do not apply to places of worship in active use.
“This ‘Ecclesiastical Exemption’ is common across the UK, but the parallel systems of control for named denominations used elsewhere were never introduced here.”
“Our built heritage is a precious and a finite resource. It is important that we work together to ensure that it is valued and safeguarded for future enjoyment.”
The public consultation will run for 12 weeks until June 13.