Coalition ministers are said to be considering legal reforms to allow gay couples to marry.
According to the Daily Telegraph, a government source said that potential reforms to open up both marriage and civil partnerships to all couples were “being discussed”.
In a separate move, equality minister Lynne Featherstone is expected to announce plans in the New Year to give gay couples the right to have religious civil partnerships.
The provision was contained in the Equality Act but needs a further ruling from ministers to become law. It will not force faiths to hold ceremonies for gay couples but is still likely to meet with heavy opposition from the Catholic Church and Church of England.
Currently, gay couples can have civil partnerships and straight couples can marry. Gay couples cannot currently have a religious ceremony, although some faiths, such as Quakers and liberal Christian and Jewish groups want to hold civil partnerships.
Gay rights activist Peter Tatchell has been leading the campaign for full marriage equality and is to challenge the UK’s marriage laws at the European Court of Human Rights next year.
He has said that the current system leads to a situation of “sexual apartheid”.
Mr Tatchell told the Daily Telegraph: “The reforms [to allow religious civil partnerships] are welcome but they don’t go far enough.
“They do not tackle the two big issues – opening up civil partnerships to heterosexual couples and civil marriage to gay couples. That is what we are campaigning for. It is what the public supports.”
Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes has predicted that the change could be made before the next election.
Earlier this week, openly gay Liberal Democrat MP Steve Gilbert called for progress on the issue.
The UK’s largest gay rights lobbying group, Stonewall, has not called for gay marriage. After consulting its supporters in the autumn, it said it would add the issue to its charitable objectives but would not support the campaign for all couples, whether gay or straight, to have access to both institutions.
A recent PinkNews.co.uk poll of 800 readers found that 98 per cent wanted the right to marry. Seventy-seven per cent agreed that marriage and civil partnerships should be open to everyone, while 23 per cent said that marriage should be the only form of recognition for all couples.
A Populus opinion poll for the Times in June 2009 found that 61 per cent of the public believe that ‘gay couples should have an equal right to get married, not just to have civil partnerships’. Only 33 per cent disagreed.