updated 2/13/2011 12:29:59 PM ET 2011-02-13T17:29:59

British media reported Sunday the government is preparing to erase some of the last remaining distinctions between gay partnership and traditional marriage — allowing gay couples to tie the knot in churches in ceremonies that may be officially known as marriages.

Britain's Home Office declined comment on the reports, but indicated that an announcement would be made soon.

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Marriage and civil partnership are already virtually identical under British law, but because same sex unions are carried out by government registrars, the ceremony must take place in a public building and religious references are banned.

Some activists also argue that the different titles — "marriage" versus "civil partnership" — means that there's still a subtle stigma attached to same sex relationships, and a group is now pressing the case to make civil partnership and marriage available to all couples.

Unsourced reports in the BBC and British newspapers said the government's equalities minister Lynne Featherstone was preparing to propose a move which would allow gay couples to get hitched in religious ceremonies and at religious venues. Many reports raised the possibility that such ceremonies would be officially known as marriages.

The effects of such a change would likely be mostly symbolic.

Britain's civil partnership law, introduced in 2005, already gives gay couples the same legal protection, adoption and inheritance rights as heterosexual married partners. And religious organizations would not be forced to allow gays to marry. The Church of England, for example, has already said it would not allow its buildings to be used for same sex weddings, no matter what they are called. The Catholic Church and British Muslim groups remain strongly opposed to same sex unions of any kind.

But some faiths — Quakers, Unitarians, and more liberal Jewish groups — might be open to hosting gay partnership ceremonies.

If the law is changed, Britain would join a number of countries that call same sex ceremonies marriages. The Netherlands, Canada, Belgium, Portugal and Spain do so already, while Germany, France, Austria and Switzerland have laws similar to Britain's.

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