The UK government has launched a 12-week public consultation on gay marriage.
Despite civil partnerships being introduced in 2005, giving gay couples equal legal rights, the government now wants to allow partners to be able to take the same vows and commitments.
The proposals to allow same-sex couples to have civil marriages has faced fierce opposition from both church leaders and members of the Conservative Party.
But in a Home Office statement today (15 March), Liberal Democrat Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone said that results from a similar excercise in 2010, on whether to allow civil partnerships to take place on religious premises, revealed the distinction between gay and opposite sex couples may perpetuate misconceptions and discrimination.
She said: 'We recognize that the personal commitment made by same-sex couples when they enter into a civil partnership is no different to the commitment made by opposite-sex couples when they enter into a marriage.
'We do not think that the ban on same-sex couples getting married should continue.'
However, Featherstone is keen to point out that the equal civil marriage proposals would not impinge on religious organizations' definition of marriage and there would be no obligation for them to carry out same-sex weddings.
'We are clear that no changes will be made to how religious organizations define and solemnize religious marriages and we are clear that we will retain civil partnerships for same-sex couples,' she added.
Stonewall has welcomed the launch of the government’s formal consultation.
The gay rights charity last month published a draft parliamentary bill for giving married same-sex couples equal legal rights, outlining the legislative steps needed to implement a policy now supported by all political party leaders and saying a gay marriage bill is so simple, it could be included in the Queen's Speech.
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 9 May and being enacted as soon as possible.’
Senior members of both the Anglican and Catholic churches have slammed gay marriage proposals.
Catholics were also urged to oppose gay marriage during masses on Sunday (11 March) in a letter written by the Archbishop of Westminster, calling Christians to protect the meaning of marriage.
A similar consultation in Scotland closed on the 9 December, attracting over 70,000 responses, making it the biggest consultation in the history of the Scottish Parliament.
The Scottish government is expected to take a decision on whether to move forward with legislation soon.