Gay 'marriages' to be allowed in UK's churches
Ministers are proposing to change the law to allow homosexual couples to "marry" in traditional religious ceremonies – including in church.
Lynne Featherstone, the Liberal Democrat equalities minister, is expected shortly to outline firm plans to lift the current ban on civil partnerships being conducted in places of worship.
In a political "win" for Nick Clegg and his party, the Coalition will also say that such ceremonies should for the first time be allowed to have a religious element, such as hymn-singing and readings from the Bible.
They could, it is understood, also be carried out in the future out by priests or other religious figures.
The landmark move will please equality campaigners but is likely to prompt a fierce backlash from mainstream Christian leaders, as well as some Right-leaning Tories.
The Church of England has already pledged not to allow any of its buildings to be used for civil partnership ceremonies, while last year
Pope Benedict said same-sex marriage was among the "most insidious and dangerous challenges that today confront the common good."
Some faiths, however – including the Quakers, Unitarians and Liberal Jews – support the change in the law and will apply for their
buildings to host same-sex "marriage" ceremonies.
Currently civil partnership ceremonies, which were introduced in 2005, have to be entirely secular and cannot contain any religious element, even though civil partners have almost exactly the same legal rights as married spouses.
Last year an amendment was added to the former Labour government's Equalities Act by Lord Alli, the Labour peer, paving the way for civil partnership ceremonies to be held in places of worship if religious groups permitted this.
However, before this arrangement could be fully legal ministers would be compelled to stage a separate consultation and to pass separate legislation. This is the process to be launched by Mrs Featherstone within days.
It is as yet unclear whether the new-style civil partnerships, formalised in a place of worship, would be officially called "marriage" under the law.
This is thought to be among the questions ministers will pose during the consultation period; they will also raise issues about the financial implications of the new arrangements, including their impact on tax.
Before last year's general election Theresa May, the current Home Secretary who was then shadow equalities minister, launched a Tory "equalities manifesto" which stated the party would, in government, "consider the case for changing the law to allow civil partnerships to be called and classified as marriage".
However, at the same time David Cameron sounded equivocal on the subject when questioned in a television interview.
He said MPs should "look to the future cautiously" about whether the current civil partnership system, which he described as having righted "one of the great unfairnesses", could be built on.
When the Equality Bill was passed by the House of Lords last March, a spokesman for the government equalities office said the move paved the way to allow religious groups "to let civil partnership ceremonies take place in their churches, mosques, synagogues and so on if they choose to do so".
The spokesman added: "It will not force any religious group to do anything that is not compatible with their faith."
However, the new move could open up a legal minefield with same-sex couples possibly taking anti-discrimination action against religious groups if they were barred from getting married in the place of worship of their choice.
Around the time of last May's general election, more than 26,000 civil partnerships had been formed in Britain, according to the Office for National Statistics.
There were also reports last night that other planned changes include allowing heterosexual couples, for the first time, to become "civil partners", an arrangement which up to has been the preserve of same-sex couples.
Campaigners have long called for this system to be changed – arguing that some heterosexual couples do not wish to enter into a state, in this case marriage, from which homosexuals are excluded.
Although civil partners have most of the same rights as married couples, critics claim the arrangement still carries a "second-class status" and can reinforce an idea of "sexual apartheid".