BRITISH ministers propose 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, Britain's coalition government 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 by priests or other religious figures.
The landmark move will please equality campaigners but is likely to prompt a 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 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.
Before last year's general election Theresa May, the current British 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".
When the Equality Bill was passed by the House of Lords last March, a spokesman for the government equalities office said: "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.