CHURCHES now have the right to host civil partnerships, equalities minister Lynne Featherstone has said.

The Hornsey and Wood Green MP hailed the decision as an "step forward" for gay rights.

Under the new legislation, churches and other religious buildings will not face legal action if they do not want to perform the ceremonies.

The legislation, introduced under the Equality Act, gives same-sex couples the the chance to register their civil partnership in a religious setting in England and Wales.

It is part of an ongoing commitment from the Government to look at the issues surrounding gay marriages on par with heterosexual marriages.

Ms Featherstone said: "Over the past few months I've spoken to a lot of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-gender people and campaign groups, and it quickly became clear that there is a real desire to address the differences between civil marriage and civil partnerships.

"I'm delighted to announce that we are going to be the first British government to formally look at what steps can be taken to address this."

The new law puts an end to the ban on civil partnership registrations being held on religious premises.

Home Office minister Theresa May said: "This Government is committed to both advancing equality for LGBT people and ensuring freedom of religion for people of all faiths, which is why we will be allowing religious organisations to host civil partnership registrations if they choose to do so.

"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."