Two same-sex couples seeking to overturn a ban on gay marriage in Northern Ireland have welcomed a judicial decision to let their case proceed.
A judge in Belfast High Court today granted them leave to challenge the refusal by the devolved Stormont Assembly to legalise same-sex marriage in the region.
Grainne Close and Shannon Sickles and Chris and Henry Flanagan-Kane are taking the judicial review against the prohibition.
They were, respectively, the first and second couples in the UK to enter into a civil partnership after Northern Ireland became the first part of the UK to make that option available to same-sex couples in December 2005.
However, the Northern Ireland Assembly has rejected a proposal calling for the introduction of gay marriage on four occasions since, with unionists opposed to the move using a contentious voting mechanism to effectively veto it.
Neither couple was in court today when Mr Justice Treacy granted leave for a judicial review but their solicitor, Mark O'Connor, spoke on their behalf afterwards.
"On behalf of our clients we are delighted we have been able to get over the first hurdle in relation to the judicial process in that the judge today has granted leave for us to bring this judicial review," he said.
"We are thankful that the judge has made that decision today. We believe that religious policy and religious views should not be affecting public policy before the courts today and thankfully the judge today appears to have accepted there is an arguable case to answer for the (Stormont) departments and hopefully we will have success in the future in relation to this matter."
Following the "Yes" vote in May's referendum on marriage equality in the Irish Republic, Northern Ireland is now set to be the only part of the UK or Ireland where civil marriage is denied to same-sex couples.
Earlier this month, about 20,000 campaigners marched in Belfast city centre demanding a change in the law.
The couples' barrister and her counterpart for the Northern Ireland Executive were anticipating making oral submissions to the court this morning, but the judge said he had read the case papers and had already satisfied himself that the matter should proceed to judicial review.
"The applicant has an arguable case," he said.
He noted there was a case with similarities progressing through the family courts in Belfast involving a same-sex couple who got married in England wishing to have their union recognised in Northern Ireland.
But he said the potential ramifications of the latest court bid were more significant.
"In this case they would be seeking to have the legislation struck down," said the judge.
The case was listed for a mention hearing in September.
Campaigners from Amnesty International and LGBT health organisation the Rainbow Project were in court.
Other supporters of the legal bid, including former Northern Ireland Assembly member Dawn Purvis and comic actress Nuala McKeever, also attended the hearing.