EQUALITY laws may need to be changed to grant the Catholic Church and other religious institutions an exemption from new rules allowing people to identify as neither male nor female, officials have said.

SNP ministers are considering plans which would see adults and children able to officially identify as "non-binary" for the first time.

The proposals would also allow people to "self-declare" their gender without undergoing any medical diagnosis or treatment. This is already the case in countries such as Ireland, Norway and Denmark.

Officials said church leaders should be given the same latitude to refuse to accept non-binary priests as they currently have to bar women.

But they suggested such a move may need changes to the Equality Act 2010, which would require working with UK lawmakers.

The Equality Act defines a number of “protected characteristics” where people might face discrimination, including on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender reassignment, which covers transgender people.

In an email released under Freedom of Information, Simon Stockwell, head of family and property law at the Scottish Government, said changes to gender laws would not affect religious exemptions to the legislation.

But he wrote: “Clearly, a further issue is non-binary people. I think it clear that the Roman Catholic Church would refuse to accept a non-binary person in the priesthood.

“There are, perhaps, potential issues here at the moment for the Church, even if we do nothing at all.

“If a priest says ‘I am no longer a man; I am non-binary’, that priest may not be in the protected characteristic of ‘gender reassignment’.

“However, as the civil law stands, I think the Church could say ‘There are only two sexes. We regard this priest as a male.’

“If we change the law to recognise non-binary as a gender and as a sex, that does suggest to me that the protected characteristic of ‘gender reassignment’ would need to be changed to protect the Church, as well as non-binary people.”

The Free Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church have both opposed the latest plans, alongside other religious groups.

Mr Stockwell was writing just over two months before the Scottish Government’s consultation was launched in November last year.

James Morton, manager of the Scottish Trans Alliance, which advised the Government on its proposals, said non-binary people would be covered under equality rules relating to gender reassignment, as they had changed their sex.

He added: “There is no proposal to change any part of the Equality Act that allows religious bodies to exclude people on the grounds either of their sex or their trans identity.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said consideration was still being given to any implications.

The Equality Act does not define sex when discussing gender reassignment. However the protected characteristic of "sex" states it is “a reference to a man or to a woman”.

The Government's consultation on its plans insisted it is “not seeking to amend” exemptions for religious bodies.

But it also added: “Increased recognition of non-binary people…might require the Scottish Government to discuss with the UK Government whether any amendments are required to the 2010 Act.”

A spokesman said: “There were over 15,500 responses to our public consultation on reforming the Gender Recognition Act 2004 in Scotland.

“We are considering those in detail before deciding on next steps. We will publish our analysis and our proposed way forward in due course.”

The Catholic Church declined to comment.