Gay activists say government is ‘ignoring’ calls for same-sex civil marriage

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The government’s equalities office is holding a series of private meetings this week with interested parties to discuss the possibility of holding civil partnerships for gay couples in church.

Gay rights activist Peter Tatchell said he and other campaigners had a meeting with junior equality minister Lynne Featherstone yesterday but claimed the majority of those present wanted full gay marriage.

Mr Tatchell said that others at the meeting included Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill, the Rev Sharon Ferguson of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, the Rev Colin Coward of liberal church group Changing Attitude, and Paul Martin of the Lesbian and Gay Foundation .

Shortly after the coalition government came into power in May, equality minister and home secretary Theresa May announced an “ambitious” programme to develop LGBT equality.

This included work to allow gay couples to register their civil partnerships in a religious setting, continuing work set in motion by Labour peer Lord Waheed Alli in the last government.

Rev Coward and Mr Martin were not available for comment this morning but Mr Tatchell and Rev Ferguson both told they felt the meeting had “ignored” their main concern, of winning the right to full marriage equality.

Rev Ferguson, who helped Lord Alli’s campaign for religious civil partnerships, said this was a “step in the right direction” but was not good enough.

She said: “My feeling was that they [the equalities office] just wanted us to say we were happy with religious civil partnerships and then to silence us so they could go to the faith groups and tell them they didn’t have to worry about gay marriage.”

She added: “It just wasn’t taken on board how strongly we feel that civil partnerships are discriminatory. They are not equal to marriage.”

Mr Tatchell said: “The meeting mostly focused on civil partnerships in church. I got the impression that the coalition government doesn’t feel confident enough to push ahead with same-sex civil marriage.”

He added: “Everyone apart from Ben Summerskill was in favour of same-sex civil marriage.”

Mr Tatchell later clarified: “Mr Summerskill said that Stonewall was not opposed to marriage equality but did not see it as a priority.”

A Stonewall spokesman confirmed that Mr Summerskill attended the meeting but said it was Stonewall policy not to discuss private talks with ministers.

A number of gay campaigners have recently been stepping up efforts to secure a public consultation on opening up civil marriage and civil partnerships to gay and straight couples alike.

Prime minister David Cameron has said that same-sex marriage is something the government will look at eventually.

Recently, Ms Featherstone, a Liberal Democrat MP, acknowledged that any consultation would take into account the views of those who are vehemently opposed to equal marriage.

A government equalities office spokesman would not confirm whether this week’s meeting schedule would include talks with anti-gay campaigners.

He said: “Last month the government published an ambitious plan to work towards equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, which included a commitment to look at possible next steps for civil partnerships.

“This week we’re holding private meetings with various groups and individuals with an interest in this area so we can decide on the best way forward.”

A Populus poll for the Times in June 2009 found that 61 per cent of those surveyed agreed with the statement ‘Gay couples should have an equal right to get married, not just to have civil partnerships.’ Thirty-three per cent disagreed.