The chief officer of the British Unitarian Church says he is disappointed by the announcement of a government consultation on gay marriage.

Derek McAuley said it would be discriminatory not to allow religious gay marriages and questioned why the process could not begin before Christmas, rather than the scheduled date of March 2012.

The Unitarian Church, along with the Quakers, Liberal and Reform Judaism, has stated its support for same-sex marriage. The churches have asked for the right to hold marriages for gay couples but government ministers say the consultation will only look at civil marriage.

Mr McAuley said: “Whilst I welcome the publication of a date for the consultation to commence I am disappointed that it is not until March 2012. There is no reason why it should not move ahead before Christmas.

“I am also concerned that the consultation will not include arrangements for same sex religious marriage. This is a discriminatory measure that is not sustainable in the longer term.

“As a ‘free’ church, Unitarians and Free Christians are very conscious that the state should not unduly interfere in our internal business. We also acknowledge our responsibilities as charitable organisations and as part of civil society to the wider community and the laws enacted by parliament.”

He added: “Our freedom to worship together and indeed for opposite sex couples to be married in our churches were hard-won in the 19th century and it is disappointing that our wish to hold same sex marriage ceremonies appears to have been stymied by the requirements of the religious establishment.

“We do not wish to force others to act against their conscience but neither should the law force us to act against ours. Whether or not churches will conduct religious marriage ceremonies for same sex couples should be a matter for them.

Mr McAuley concluded: “The government should not see implementation of civil partnership registration in religious premises as a substitute for same sex religious marriage.”

His words echo complaints from gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who said it was “bizarre” to prohibit same-sex marriages where churches were willing to hold them.

Mr Tatchell wrote: “While no religious body should be forced to perform gay or lesbian marriages, the government should give them the option and let them decide. It is time for legislation to end the legal prohibition on same-sex weddings conducted by faith organisations.”