Gay couples in Britain are to be allowed to “marry” and given the right to hold traditional weddings under unprecedented reforms that would end the historic legal definition of marriage.

The current ban on same-sex “civil partnership” ceremonies being conducted in churches and other places of worship would be lifted under plans expected to be unveiled by Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone.

Such ceremonies could also be allowed to have a religious element such as including hymns or readings from the Bible, according to The Sunday Telegraph. “It is understood that they could also in future be carried out by priests or other religious officials,” it said.

There was, however, no move to compel religious organisations to hold such marriages, the BBC reported. The dominant opinion both in the Church of England and the Catholic church is opposed to the idea of a same sex marriage. A marriage, they insist, can only be between a man and a woman.

Currently, gay persons are allowed to enter into “civil partnerships” that give them the same legal inheritance and property rights as married couples but a partnership is not legally recognised as a marriage. Activists say this amounts to treating them as second-class citizens.

Welcoming the proposed move, gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said it was “long overdue”.

“Permitting faith organisations to make their own decision on whether to conduct same-sex civil partnerships is the democratic and decent thing to do. The current law prevents them from doing so, even if they want to. No religious institution will be forced to perform civil partnerships if they do not wish to do so,” he said.

Faith groups, however, were more guarded in their comment.

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