South Africa is set to back a controversial gay partnerships bill which is opposed by religious groups and seen as a disappointment by some gay campaigners.

All members of the ruling African National Council have been ordered to vote for the Civil Unions Bill which allows the “voluntary union of two persons, which is solemnised and registered by either a marriage or civil union.”

The legislation, which would make South Africa the first on the continent to allow same sex unions, is pretty non-committal, avoiding references to whether the partners are gay or straight.

Religious groups have also been given an opt out clause, allowing ministers to refuse to perform ceremonies if it is against their “conscience, religion and belief.”

This has dissatisfied gay groups who feel it gives them unequal status to straight couples.

Last December the Constitutional Court of South Africa ruled that same-sex marriages should enjoy the same legal status as those between men and women, thereby giving the parliament a year to amend the 1961 marriage law.

Parliament has been given until next month to change the law.