The 12-week consultation on how to lift the ban on gay couples marrying in a civil ceremony in England and Wales has been launched by the government today.

The Home Office confirmed the consultation will look at how to remove this barrier and bring about equal non-religious marriage. Under proposals, civil partnerships could be converted to marriages if couples wish.

The document confirms that straight civil partnerships are not currently under consideration but welcomes views on the subject.

Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone said: “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.

“Marriage is a celebration of love and should be open to everyone.”

The consultation document says the government proposes to:

• enable same-sex couples to get married through civil ceremonies.
• retain civil partnerships for same-sex couples, including the ability to have a civil partnership
registration on religious premises (on a voluntary basis and retaining the ban on any religious elements forming part of the registration).
• allow transsexual people to change their legal gender without having to legally end their existing marriage or civil partnership.
• make no changes to how religious marriages are solemnized.

The proposals allow gay couples to convert their civil partnerships to marriages if they choose to.

Gay couples would be able to have a marriage ceremony in civil premises or have a civil partnership on secular or religious premises if they prefer.

There are no current proposals to allow straight couples to enter civil partnerships. The consultation seeks views on this.

Transgender people will be able to remain married to their spouse when they receive a Gender Recognition Certificate, meaning they will not need to divorce. But transgender people in a civil partnership will still need to dissolve that partnership for the government to give them legal recognition as opposite-sex civil partnerships are not being proposed.

The consultation document first asks: “Do you agree or disagree with enabling all couples, regardless of their gender to have a civil marriage ceremony?” and allows the reader to explain this in 150 words. It was suggested by a Catholic paper that this question might signal a change in the government’s approach to the consultation, but the question is believed to be necessary to frame responses to the 15 further questions on the proposals that follow.

The consultation documents are available to view on the Home Office website and you can complete the consultation online there from today.

Responses must be received by 14 June 2012.

Gay rights charity Stonewall welcomed the launch of the consultation today.

Stonewall Chief Executive Ben Summerskill said: “We’re delighted that this consultation is finally taking place. As Stonewall’s draft Marriage Bill shows, the steps necessary to extend the legal form of marriage to same-sex couples needn’t take much parliamentary time.

“We look forward to this important measure being included in the Queen’s Speech on May 9 and being enacted as soon as possible.”

Paul Martin OBE, Chief Executive of the Lesbian and Gay Foundation, said: “We are aware that the forces against us are very mobilized on this issue and the numbers who have signed the Coalition For Marriage petition outnumber the people who have signed the Coalition For Equal Marriage Petition by more than 4 to 1. It is therefore vital that we ensure that everyone who supports the right for two people of the same sex to have a civil marriage participates in this consultation and ensure that the voices for positive change and for equality are heard.”

PinkNews.co.uk has long called for the introduction of equal marriage rights for gay couples and we encourage readers to contribute to the consultation and, if you support marriage equality, make a public declaration of support by signing the Coalition for Equal Marriage’s petition in favour of equal marriage rights for gays.