Christian group threatens legal challenge over Northern Ireland same-sex marriage plans
AN evangelical Christian group has threatened Secretary of State Julian Smith with court action over the extension of same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland.
The Christian Institute said it has received legal opinion which suggests Church ministers preaching against same-sex marriage could face prosecution under laws on inciting hatred.
It said it would seek a judicial review unless the north receives "clear protections for free speech" in a similar way to Britain.
Simon Calvert, the group's deputy director, said he was "extremely concerned" that Northern Ireland's laws "could get in the way of free speech and debate about gay marriage".
But solicitor Ciaran Moynagh, who has been involved in the Love Equality campaign to extend same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland, dismissed the concerns as "scaremongering".
"The new law is clear. Religious ministers of any creed are free to preach. Hate speech, of course, is a totally different thing. It has no place in churches or society as a whole anyway," he said.
Mr Moynagh, of Belfast-based firm Phoenix Law, said there has been a "full and frank debate around the introduction on same-sex marriage since 2012.. but it's clear a massive majority here support it".
The north's first same-sex weddings are due to take place by Valentine's Day following legislation passed through Westminster last year in the absence of devolved government at Stormont.
In a statement a British government spokeswoman said: "As the Secretary of State announced in parliament in October, a public consultation on same-sex religious marriage in Northern Ireland (and the associated protections), as well as conversion entitlements, is being prepared for publication, subject to confirmation by the government."