Sexual orientation is a protected class in the Swedish Constitution, yet the country defined marriage as between one man and one woman in 1987, making gay marriage illegal. But legislation to be introduced shortly seeks to make Sweden the seventh country to legalize gay marriage, reports AFP.

“Sweden could have a gender neutral marriage law by May 1, 2009,” Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt told Swedish Radio on November 5.

Gay couples have had the right to register in a civil union since 1995. The union offers gays and lesbians the same legal status as married heterosexual couples, including the right to adopt.

But in Sweden 74% of couples marry in a church ceremony, which legally weds the couple. And the Lutheran Church, which has been blessing gay unions in a separate ceremony since 2007, has said it would like to reserve the name marriage for heterosexual couples.

A majority of Swedes are members of the Lutheran Church (74% in 2007).

Opposing the law are the Christian Democrats who agree with the Lutheran Church. However, supporters of gay marriage say they have the votes needed for passage.

Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, the Moderate Party leader, is a strong supporter of gay and lesbian rights, voting for civil unions in 1994 when his Party disagreed. And Sweden remains a fairly liberal country with nearly three-fourths of Swedes approving of gay marriage (71%).

Gay marriage in Sweden has remained in a holding pattern for years because two of the country's four political parties opposed it. But an October 2007 Moderate Party endorsement broke that stalemate, leaving only the Christian Democrats opposed to the legalization of gay marriage. The legislation does allow for pastors to opt out of performing gay wedding ceremonies.

The Christian Democrats said the turn of events left them disappointed.

“My position is that I have been tasked by the Party to argue that marriage is for men and women,” Christian Democrat Leader Goran Hagglund told Swedish Radio.

“The coalition government has agreed that we will present a basic marriage bill to parliament,” Reinfeldt said. “The three parties in favor of a gender neutral marriage law will then present an accompanying motion seeking to have a law in place by May 1, 2009.”

If passed, Sweden would become the seventh country to legalize gay marriage and the Swedish Lutheran Church may become one of the first churches to allow gay marriage.