The British government will unveil new laws this week giving gay and lesbian couples the same rights as married heterosexual couples.

According to reports in London newspaper ,The Observer, the Civil Partnerships Bill will give all couples who sign up and are in a committed relationship equal rights, regardless of sexual orientation.

Same-sex couples will be able to sign a register in a procedure similar to a marriage. The Government is expected to insist it is not officially a marriage, but rather a contract between two people.

Couples will have rights to pensions similar to married couples, will not have to pay inheritance tax on property passed between them when one dies, and will have access to hospital records similar to that allowed for a spouse.

Gay couples will not have to go through an official ceremony as heterosexual couples do. But it is likely that most councils will allow ceremonies to take place.

Similar developments are occurring in Ireland, where legislation is being introduced in the Senate to grant same-sex couples the same rights as married heterosexuals.

The Domestic Partnership Bill will be presented in coming weeks and is expected to be passed with little trouble, Gay.com reports. It already has cross-party support. While Irish Catholic Bishops are expected to oppose the bill, commentators say the issue is likely to be less heated than in the United States.

Attention in the US has focused again on Massachusetts, the state that sparked the gay marriage explosion last November when discrimination against same-sex marriage was deemed unconstitutional.

The state’s legislature approved an amendment on Monday banning gay marriages in favour of civil unions, but according to Massachusetts law the amendment cannot be ratified for another two years. This means that after Monday, 17 May the state remains under court order to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, if requested.

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