Same-sex couples could be able to register civil partnerships in churches in England and Wales early in the new year, according to controversial new plans from the Government.
Lynne Featherstone, an equalities minister, has said that no religious group will be forced to hold the controversial ceremonies.
But critics have previously warned that allowing the contentious unions in churches could lead to litigation against clergy.
And the Government’s own consultation paper admitted that the scheme would bring a “risk of additional legal challenge” against churches.
Currently civil partnerships can only be held in register offices and secular venues such as hotels and stately homes.
But from next year same-sex couples look set to be able to register their civil partnerships in churches, mosques and synagogues in England and Wales.
The proposals for civil partnerships in churches are entirely separate from plans to introduce same-sex marriage in England and Wales. A consultation on redefining marriage is expected to begin in March 2012.
Before the changes to the law affecting civil partnerships come into force the appropriate regulations will need to be approved by both Houses of Parliament. The regulations are expected to meet resistance in the Lords.
A spokesman for the Church of England said: “We will study the draft regulations as a matter of urgency to check that they deliver the firm assurances that have been given to us and others that the new arrangements will operate by way of denominational opt-in.”
The spokesman added: “The Church of England has no intention of allowing civil partnerships to be registered in its churches.”
Miss Featherstone said: “The government is advancing equality for LGB (lesbian, gay and bisexual) people and ensuring freedom of religion for people of all faiths.
“No religious group will be forced to host a civil partnership registration, but for those who wish to do so this is an important step forward.”
Earlier this year a number of evangelical Christian organisations, including The Christian Institute, criticised the Government’s plans to allow civil partnerships to be held in churches.
In a statement they said: “We reiterate our long-held opposition to allowing civil partnerships to be registered in churches.
“It is a breach of undertakings made by Government ministers during debates on the Civil Partnership Bill.”
Last year the then Bishop of Winchester, Rt Revd Michael Scott-Joynt, said: “I believe that it will open, not the Church of England, but individual clergy, to charges of discrimination if they solemnise marriages as they all do, but refuse to host civil partnership signings in their churches.
And earlier this year Edward Leigh, a senior Tory MP, said: “When Civil Partnerships were brought in we were assured that they were not marriage.
“This pledge has now been broken. A marriage is a union between a man and a woman making a sincere attempt to stay together for life with a view to raising children.
“Civil Partnerships, by definition, cannot be this. The whole point of banning Civil Partnerships in a place of worship was to make clear that they were not marriages. This distinction will now be lost.”