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By Hugh Logue, Newswatch Editor
The Home Office has launched a consultation on how to allow same-sex civil marriages.
Since the introduction of the Civil Partnership Act, which came into force in 2005, same-sex couples can legally have a civil partnership but not a civil marriage. The government wants to make the right to marry in civil premises available to everyone.
The consultation stresses that churches would not be obliged to hold same sex marriages and the proposed legislation would be applicable in England and Wales, but not Scotland or Northern Ireland.
The changes would also allow transsexual people to change their legal gender without having to legally end their existing marriage.
Ironically the proposed legislation, which aims at furthering equal rights, could potentially discriminate against heterosexuals by allowing same-sex couples the option of marriage or civil partnerships but only marriage for heterosexual couples.
Critics opposed to the change object that the consultation is on 'how' and not 'whether' same-sex civil marriages will be introduced. Colin Hart, campaign director for the Coalition for Marriage, said: "I always thought that a consultation was about listening to people and asking them their views, before making a decision.
"Not only are they redefining the meaning of marriage, they're redefining the meaning of consultation.
"The institution of marriage is not the play thing of the state, it belongs to society and therefore cannot be redefined by a few politicians obsessed with appearing 'trendy' and 'progressive'."
However, the proposed change is supported by the three main political parties. Launching the proposals, the equalities minister, Lynne Featherstone, said that marriage should be open to everyone.
"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.
"Today 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," Ms Featherstone added.
The twelve month consultation will close on 14 June 2012. To read the full consultation and contribute, click here.