Published: Feb 17, 2011 6:05 PM EST
Updated: Feb 17, 2011 3:09 PM EST

LONDON (AP) - Gay couples are to be allowed civil partnership ceremonies in places of worship, Britain's government said Thursday - a move advocates welcomed as a step in the right direction but say falls short of their goal for full equal marriage rights.

The government stressed, however, that houses of worship can opt out if they wish.

Although marriage and civil partnership are already similar under British law, civil partnership ceremonies are currently not allowed to have religious references, are banned from places of worship, and must take place in a public building overseen by a government registrar.

The change, being introduced under equality laws, will give same-sex couples the chance to tie the knot in religious buildings - an option that did not exist for Mark Harrison and his partner when they engaged in a civil partnership ceremony at a north London town hall in May 2009.

"It's the tradition and the dream to have a beautiful church wedding," he said. "If straight couples have that opportunity and want to get married in a church despite not being religious then it should be the same for everyone."

In Britain, only heterosexual couples can get married, while civil partnership is available only to same-sex couples. Activists argue both should be open to all couples.

The change is a first step toward making civil partnerships more equal to marriages and there may be further changes to the law in this direction, the Home Office said.

Harrison questioned why authorities didn't go a step further and give gay marriage the green light.

"Any step closer to equality is always a good thing but I'm unsure as to why they don't go the whole hog," he said.

 Activists, such as Peter Tatchell, have welcomed the government's move, but called the government's decision to leave further changes toward marriage rights up for discussion "spineless."

"The government could have taken a bold new initiative to ensure that both straight and gay couples have the option of marriage," said Tatchell, who coordinates the Equal Love campaign - which seeks to end what it calls sexual orientation discrimination in both civil marriage and civil partnership law.

Several religious affiliations, including the Catholic Church and British Muslim groups, have said they are strongly opposed to same sex unions of any kind.

"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," said Home Secretary Theresa May.

The Church of England reiterated that it will not bless civil partnerships and said the proposed regulation must make clear "there is genuine freedom for each religious tradition to resolve these matters in accordance with its own convictions."

But some religious members of the gay community are hoping those convictions keep up with a rapid pace of change in Europe that, in under a century, has reversed laws outlawing homosexuality and - in some countries - legalized gay marriage .

Anthony House, a Roman Catholic, said he knows "overcoming 2000 years of doing something one way" won't happen overnight. Still, he called the U.K. move a "wonderful" step in the right direction, and said he hopes gay civil partnership ceremonies will eventually be adopted by his church.

 "My faith is an important part of who I am and including that, in what is an important steppingstone in my life, would be very welcome," House said. He and his partner Andrew Brennan, both American, plan to "marry" in the U.K. in August - a term he considers interchangeable with "civil partnership."

"Obviously, the Catholic Church does not change its tune quickly, but the trend is going in one direction," he said. "We'll get there."

Britain's civil partnership law, introduced in 2005, already gives gay couples the same legal protection, adoption and inheritance rights as heterosexual married partners.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)