The Norwegian government has introduced legislation allowing same-sex couples to marry and have joint custody over children.

The Scandinavian country already allows gay and lesbian couples to enter into civil partnerships, but LGBT rights groups have long complained the law does not go far enough.

The Norwegian National Association for Lesbian and Gay Liberation (LLH) said the current arrangements created two classes of citizenship – one for heterosexuals and another for the LGBT community.

In 2004 a similar law, which proposed to abolish the system of civil

partnerships and replace it with one single gender neutral marriage law for all citizens, was rejected by the Norwegian parliament.

The new legislation, while not full equal marriage, amends the definition of civil marriage in Norway to make it gender neutral.

The bill, if passed, would replace a 1993 law that gives gays the right to enter civil unions similar to marriage, but refuses them the right to church weddings or to be considered as adoptive parents.

As well as more equal partnership rights, it would expand the provision of parenting rights.

For example, the new legislation would allow a lesbian who is married to another women who becomes pregnant through in vitro fertilisation to have all the rights of parenthood “from the moment of conception.”

The legislation additionally states that in cases of adoption, both partners, gay or lesbian, would have complete joint parenting rights.

Family Issues minister Anniken Huitfeldt in introducing the bill called it “an historic step towards equality.”

She also had a message for some members of Parliament who claimed the bill would weaken tradition marriage.

“The new law won’t weaken marriage as an institution,” Huitfeldt told Parliament.

“Rather, it will strengthen it. Marriage won’t be worth less

because more can take part in it.”

Like parliament, the three-party coalition that currently governs Norway was split on key points of the new law.

Minister of Local Government Magnhild Meltveit Kleppa and Transport Minister Liv Signe Navarsete said they could not support the right to assisted pregnancies for lesbian couples, but endorsed the remainder of the bill.

Parliament’s second-largest bloc, the Party of Progress, and the smaller Christian Democratic Party both immediately said they would oppose the bill.

About 85 percent of Norway’s 4.7 million people are registered as members of the state Lutheran Church of Norway, although far fewer are active.

Norway has historically had a tolerant attitude towards the LGBT community and has championed LGBT rights on the international stage.

Representatives from Norway delivered a short oral statement at the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2006 in support of a resolution condemning human rights abuses involving LGBT victims.

The statement dealt with the most severe human rights abuses , such as violence, torture and death, directed against people because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.