Following the UK government’s announcement today to bring forward equal marriage legislation in early 2013, Peter Tatchell has said that it is wrong to make it illegal for the Church of England to marry same-sex couples, and that gay couples will have a legal advantage, if straight couples are not offered the right to civil partnerships.

Maria Miller, Culture Secretary, today announced the government’s plans to bring forward marriage equality, and that the intention was for religious institutions to be allowed to ‘opt-in’ to performing same-sex marriages.

In a statement, the human rights campaigner said:

“The government’s commitment to allow most religious organisations to conduct same-sex marriages – but not the Church of England and the Church in Wales – is a disappointing fudge that perpetuates inequality. Denying these churches the right to opt-in and host same-sex marriages undermines gay equality and religious freedom,” said Peter Tatchell, Director of the human rights organisation, the Peter Tatchell Foundation.

“Exempting the official established church sends the wrong signal. There is no reason why these churches should be treated differently from other faiths.

“This faith-based discrimination could be open to legal challenge. The government is treating two churches differently from all other religions. Discriminating between faith groups is probably illegal under the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights.”

He continued: “It is very foolish of the government to appear to be caving in to the demands of intolerant religious lobbyists by making it illegal for the Church of England and Church in Wales to conduct religious same-sex marriages, even if they want to do so.

“These exemptions undermine the praise the government deserves for sticking to its pledge to legalise same-sex marriage. The commitment to marriage equality is commendable

“Permitting same-sex couples with civil partnerships to convert them into civil marriages is a positive move.

“Retaining the ban on opposite-sex civil partnerships is a huge failing. It deprives heterosexual couples of legal equality. I strongly support the right of straight people to equal treatment.

“Under the government’s plans, gay couples will soon have legal privileges over heterosexual couples.”

The long-time advocate of equal rights for all, concluded: “There will be two forms of official state recognition for lesbian and gay couples: the present system of civil partnerships plus marriage. Heterosexual couples will have only one option: marriage.

“The Equal Love campaign will continue our legal appeal in the European Court of Human Rights, in a bid to win the right of opposite-sex couples to have a civil partnership, if they wish to do so,” he said.

Speaking at the Liberal Democrat Conference in September, International Development Minister Lynne Featherstone, who was previously the junior equalities minister until this year’s reshuffle, stated that reforming civil partnership legislation should be conducted separately to same-sex marriage reform.

The Lib Dem MP told an LGBT fringe event that discussions about heterosexual civil partnerships should be incorporated into a wider debate concerning co-habitation rights.