Faith groups and equality campaigners have welcomed news that the government will push ahead with plans to allow the use of religious premises in same-sex civil partnerships in England and Wales.
Last year's Equality Act allowed for this change, but the government has not yet implemented it.
No religious elements have been allowed in civil partnerships since they were introduced in 2005. But reports today (13 February) suggest that this may be about to change, following plans by the Equalities Minister, Lynne Featherstone.
A change in the law would allow faith groups to carry out same-sex partnerships if they chose to do so. There is no suggestion that they will be obliged to carry out same-sex ceremonies if they do not believe in them.
The measure would apply only to civil partnerships in England and Wales, although there are campaigns underway for similar changes in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
A change is supported by a number of Church of England bishops as well as Quakers, Unitarians, Liberal Jews and the Metropolitan Community Church. It is also backed by the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement and the Christian thinktank Ekklesia.
Many campaigners have urged the government to go further and grant legal recognition to same-sex marriage. This is a key aim of the Equal Love campaign, which is calling for both same-sex and mixed-sex couples to be allowed to choose between a marriage and a civil partnership.
“We are delighted that the government has heard us and others," said Michael Hutchinson on behalf of Britain's Quakers, "To us this is about including all of our religious community in being able to publicly express their deep commitment".
He explained, "We ourselves see no distinction between heterosexual or homosexual in terms of commitment and wish to move further to allow legal marriage for same-sex couples, but this is a welcome step along the way to full equality.”
The human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell described the recognition of religious elements in civil partnerships as "long overdue".
"It was agreed by Parliament nearly a year ago," he said, "Permitting faith organisations to make their own decision on whether to conduct same-sex civil partnerships is the democratic and decent thing to do."
But he insisted that, "The next logical step is to end the ban on gay civil marriages".
Ekklesia welcomed the news but called for a thorough overhaul of the marriage laws to reflect the realities of a plural society.
"Religious same-sex couples have received good news in time for Valentine's Day," said Symon Hill, associate director of Ekklesia, "Parliament voted last year to allow religious elements in civil partnerships. The government must now implement this legislation."
He added, "This is important for the religious liberty of the faith communities concerned. It is wholly inaccurate to suggest that any church or other faith group will be forced to carry out same-sex ceremonies against their will."
But he pointed out that many anomalies will remain. Same-sex partnerships still cannot be described in law as 'marriage'. Different groups have different freedoms to perform marriage and partnership ceremonies.
"An overhaul of marriage law is now urgently required to respond to the diversity of beliefs and relationships in a plural society," said Hill, "It is time for a legal change that allows people to enter into marriages or partnerships as a public, communal, and if important to them, a religious commitment, with legal registration being a separate process."