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Gay couples clear first stage in legal challenge against Northern Ireland's same-sex marriage ban

Two gay couples have been given the green light to challenge Northern Ireland's ban on same-sex marriage in the courts.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK and Ireland that has not legalised same-sex marriage.

Grainne Close and Shannon Sickles, and Chris and Henry Flanagan-Kane, are bidding to challenge that ban.

Today a judge gave them leave to seek a judicial review.

The matter was adjourned until September.

Neither couple was in court for this morning's brief hearing.

Speaking outside court, solicitor Mark O'Connor, who is acting on behalf of the couples, said: "We are delighted that we have been able to get over the first hurdle in relation to the judicial process and that the judge today has granted leave for us to bring this judicial review.

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"We are thankful that the judge has made that decision today.

"We believe that religious policy and religious views shouldn't be affecting public policy.

"Thankfully today the judge appears to have accepted that there is an arguable case to answer for the departments and hopefully we will have success in the future in relation to this matter."

The Northern Ireland Assembly has debated the issue of same-sex marriage four times, and each time MLAs have voted against it.

The two couples who have taken the legal challenge were among the first to have civil ceremonies in Northern Ireland.

Both cemented their relationships in civil partnerships a decade ago at Belfast City Hall.

Earlier this week Ms Close said: "This is not a religious issue, it is a human rights issue. That is why we are going to court."

Same-sex marriage was legalised in the rest of the UK last year.

Last month more than 62% of the electorate in the Republic of Ireland voted to legalise same-sex marriage.

Same-sex marriage is now legal in 20 countries worldwide.

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