The British government on Thursday launched a 12-week consultation on whether to legalize gay marriage in England and Wales, the BBC reported.

The proposal seeks to legalize marriage for gay and lesbian couples before 2015. Gay couples in a civil partnership, which came online in 2005, could convert their union into a marriage. But a current ban on gay couples marrying in a religious service would be maintained.

“We're not looking at changing religious marriage,” said Liberal Democrat Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone, “even for those that might wish to do it.”

“I understand the liberal Jews, the Quakers and some Unitarian churches would like it, but that's not in the sight of this consultation.”

“I believe that if a couple love each other and want to commit to a life together, they should have the option of a civil marriage, whatever their gender,” she added. “Marriage is a celebration of love and should be open to everyone.”

However, the Church of England condemned the reforms, accusing the government of confusing wedding ceremonies with marriage.

“Arguments that suggest 'religious marriage' is separate and different from 'civil marriage,' and will not be affected by the proposed redefinition misunderstand the legal nature of marriage in this country. They mistake the form of the ceremony for the institution itself.”

The Roman Catholic church in England and Wales last weekend urged Catholics to oppose gay nuptials.

An online petition against the government's reforms has received more than 200,000 signatures.

Peter Tatchell, a respected gay rights activist, called the continued ban on religious marriages for gay couples “homophobic.”

“This is not only homophobic but also an attack on religious freedom,” he told the BBC. “While no religious body should be forced to conduct same-sex marriages, those that want to conduct them should be free to do so.”