Government consultation on same-sex marriage: what you need to know

A consultation on how to lift the ban on same-sex couples marrying in a civil ceremony in England and Wales is being held by the government. Here's a guide to what is happening.

Some wedding ringsGetty Images

What is being proposed?

That the existing ban on same-sex couples being able to marry in a civil ceremony be scrapped.

No changes would be made to religious marriages, which would remain only legally recognised if between a man and a woman.

How would this work in practice?

Civil marriage ceremonies would be opened to same-sex couples.

Civil partnerships would be retained for same-sex couples, and couples already in a civil partnership would be allowed to convert it into a marriage.

What else is being proposed?

A law to allow people to stay married and legally change their gender.

What is not being proposed?

Any changes to religious marriage. The law will still require this to be between a man and a woman. The consultation will not change how religious organisations define and solemnise religious marriages - that is, marriages through a religious ceremony and on religious premises.

What does the law currently state?

That same-sex couples may enter into a civil partnership, but not civil marriage. The government's consultation will look at how to remove this barrier and bring about equal civil marriage. At present, civil partnerships and marriage are two entirely separate legal regimes with different pieces of legislation covering them, although they confer similar rights and responsibilities.

What about civil partnerships taking place on religious premises?

This is already allowed under law, and will remain open to same-sex couples on the same basis - that is, something that is agreed on a voluntary arrangement with faith groups. There can be no religious content during the civil partnership registration.

Do many countries allow same-sex marriages?

Yes. Countries that have introduced marriage provision for same-sex couples include Spain, Canada, Argentina, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa, Sweden and Belgium.

What has the government said about their proposals?

On launching the consultation, equalities minister Lynne Featherstone said:

"I believe that if a couple love each other and want to commit to a life together, they should have the option of a civil marriage, whatever their gender.

"[This consultation] is a hugely important step as we consider how to lift the ban on civil marriage for same-sex couples.

"This is about the underlying principles of family, society, and personal freedoms. Marriage is a celebration of love and should be open to everyone."

What other reaction has there been?

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: "Religious marriages are a matter for each church and denomination, not for the government. But equally, the government should go further than they currently plan.

"Churches who want to celebrate gay marriage [should have] the chance to do so."

Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell welcomed the government's commitment to legalise same-sex civil marriages. But he expressed his disappointment that the ban on religious same-sex marriages would remain.

"This is not only homophobic but also an attack on religious freedom," Mr Tatchell said. "While no religious body should be forced to conduct same-sex marriages, those that want to conduct them should be free to do so."

What about those who are opposed to the changes?

A campaign group Coalition for Marriage is opposed any reform of the law. A spokesman for the group, Mike Judge, said: "Marriage is so much part of everyday life. If we change its meaning in law, it will have a knock-on effect in everyday life."

A rival campaign group, Coalition for Equal Marriage, has also been launched to support the proposals.

Outspoken opposition has been voiced by Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland. Cardinal O'Brien has branded the plans as "grotesque" and said they would "shame the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world" if implemented.

The Church of England has published its response to the consultation, arguing the proposal threatens the future of the institution and could lead to it being forced out of its role of conducting weddings on behalf of the state.

Are similar consultations taking place in Scotland and Northern Ireland?

The Scottish government has already held its own consultation process and received more than 50,000 responses. A response is expected later this year.

There are currently no plans for a consultation in Northern Ireland.

How do I take part in the consultation?

By completing a survey on the Home Office website. The survey takes around 20 minutes to complete.

When does the consultation end?

14 June 2012.

What happens then?

Following the end of the consultation, the government will introduce any required legal changes by the end of this parliament (scheduled for spring 2015).