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gaymarriageThe UK Government has launched a 12-week consultation process on the issue of allowing gay couples to marry in England and Wales. A similar consultation is already taking place in Scotland. Although civil partnerships, which were introduced in 2005, give same-sex couples in registered unions the same legal rights as married couples, many same-sex couples have argued that it is simply marriage by another name, and should therefore be recognized as such. A small number of heterosexual people have also argued that they should be allowed to form a civil partnership, and that allowing only same-sex couples to do so is discriminatory. Opponents to the move include senior church figures, as well as some Conservative MPs. The consultation paper proposes to allow same-sex couples to marry in a register office or other civil ceremony, to retain civil partnerships for same-sex couples, and allow couples already in a civil partnership to convert it into a marriage if they so wish. However, it will maintain the legal ban on same-sex couples marrying in a religious service.

Liberal Democrat Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone said: “We’re not looking at changing religious marriage, even for those that might wish to do it. I understand the liberal Jews, the Quakers and some unitarian churches would like it, but that’s not in the sight of this consultation.”

The announcement of the Government consultation has predictably received a mix response from those on either side of the argument. Stonewall Chief Executive Ben Summerskill said: “We’re delighted that this consultation is finally taking place. As Stonewall’s draft Marriage Bill shows, the steps necessary to extend the legal form of marriage to same-sex couples needn’t take much parliamentary time. We look forward to this important measure being included in the Queen’s Speech on May 9 and being enacted as soon as possible.”

Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said, “While we welcome the commitment to legalise same-sex civil marriages, we are unhappy that the government intends to maintain the ban on heterosexual civil partnerships and the ban on religious same-sex marriages, even if faith organisations wish to conduct them. This is not equality. It perpetuates discrimination.”

Earlier in March, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, described the proposed introduction of same-sex marriage as “grotesque”. However, the proposals have been given a more cautious welcome by the leaders of some other faiths. Derek McAuley, Chief Officer of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christians said, “The hosting of civil partnerships in our churches and chapels is a step towards our ultimate goal of full equality for lesbian and gay people. Our stance refutes the simplistic argument that people of faith and rights for LGBT people are necessarily in conflict. Unitarians will look in detail at the consultation paper and respond on the basis of our long-term commitment to inclusion.”

The Home Office is asking individuals and organisations to give their views on the proposals for England and Wales via an online survey. If you wish to express your opinion, go to

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