A government consultation on the future of UK civil partnerships opens today.
Interested parties are being asked to give their views on ceremonies being permitted in religious buildings, if faiths wish to hold them.
Currently, civil partnerships cannot contain any religious elements. However, faiths such as the Quakers, Unitarian Church and Liberal Judaism have said they want the right to perform the ceremonies.
A provision was included in the Equality Act to allow this and coalition government ministers are now working out how the change can be implemented.
In a written ministerial statement, equality minister Lynne Featherstone said that faith groups would have to agree whether to hold the ceremonies. Individual premises would then have to apply for approval from their local authority.
She said the proposals were “designed to respect the wishes of faith groups whether they wish to host civil partnership registrations or not, and to keep burdens on local authorities to a minimum”.
Churches will not be forced to hold civil partnerships, a clause in the Equality Act stresses. The provision and proposals to widen the definition of marriage apply only to England and Wales. The governments of Scotland and Northern Ireland will consider these issues separately.
Legislative changes are required for religious civil partnerships but it is understood that the law could change by the end of the year. The measure has already been approved by MPs and Lords.
Ministers said last month that a separate consultation will be held on marriage equality.
Gay rights campaigners say the current civil partnerships system is discriminatory and claim that many gay couples would prefer the right to marry.
It is understood that the government’s preferred option is to eventually open civil marriage and civil partnerships to all couples, whether straight or gay.
Last February, the leader of the Liberal Democrats and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg wrote on PinkNews.co.uk: “I support gay marriage. Love is the same, straight or gay, so the civil institution should be the same, too. All couples should be able to make that commitment to one another.”
Marriage equality was later adopted as official party policy.