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Stonewall is split by row about same-sex marriages

Stonewall, Britain's largest gay-rights campaigning group, is in the grip of a deepening row – involving such prominent activists as Sir Ian McKellen – over accusations that the group is failing to back a campaign for same-sex marriages.

The Oscar-nominated gay-rights campaigner, who is a co-founder of Stonewall, has joined other high-profile figures to call for the organisation to campaign for the legal union between a same-sex couple to be enshrined as "marriage" in British law. Marriage is still barred for homosexuals, and many feel lifting the bar would mark the final step in the process of gaining full recognition for same-sex relationships.

The current law categorises any same-sex legal union as a civil partnership and while they accord homosexual couples the same rights as married heterosexual couples, campaigners say the law remains iniquitous by failing to allow a same-sex union to be legally called a marriage.

Stonewall, which has 20,000 supporters and has been at the forefront of Britain's gay-rights movement for more than 20 years, has publicly stated it has no formal position on gay-marriage equality because it is consulting lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people on how to approach the issue.

The charity's chief executive, Ben Summerskill, raised eyebrows when he told a fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrat conference that a policy allowing all couples the right to a civil partnership or a marriage regardless of gender could cost the public purse up to £5bn over ten years because of the tax implications of opening up civil partnerships to heterosexual couples.

Critics including Michael Cashman, a Labour MEP who is also a co-founder of Stonewall, said the organisation's silence on the issue was in danger of being interpreted as opposition to marriage equality, and the cost implications for the taxpayer of such a move should not be the concern of the charity.

In a statement on the issue, Mr Cashman said: "Surely no pounds sterling figure can be any serious argument against civil rights. Will Stonewall go to Pride marches next spring with placards reading: 'We're still consulting on equality'? Stonewall is not in government and their role is to represent the interests of LGBT communities. Stonewall has been 'consulting' for so long that its deafening silence may end up being interpreted as being against universal marriage."

Sir Ian joined the row this week when he said that while issues such as homophobic bullying should remain a higher priority for Stonewall, it was right that the group should also lobby for gay marriage. He told the Pink News website: "If people want to get married, whoever they are, they should be allowed to. That's self-evident to me and all I've ever campaigned for is equality for gay people, and at the moment there is inequality in that civil partnerships are all that's available."

Mr Summerskill – who led Stonewall's successful campaigns for the repeal of the Section 28 law banning "promoting homosexuality" and the establishment of civil partnerships – told The Independent it was wrong to say that the charity was against gay-marriage equality, and that Stonewall was obliged to take into account a diversity of views among its supporters.

The charity will finish its consultation exercise later this month. He said: "There is a range of views on this subject, from those who very much want gay marriages and for them to be mandatory in churches, to those who reject civil partnerships as 'hetero-normative'. We are determined to achieve as broad a consensus on this as possible and to that end we are consulting our supporters on what issues they want us to prioritise.

"It would be entirely inappropriate to announce the outcome of that process before it is complete," he added. "It is also categorically wrong to say that we are opposed to gay-marriage equality generally." Campaigners want to build on willingness among political parties, including Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, to push for legislation removing the legal definition of marriage, first laid down in 1973, as being a union only between a man and a woman. But that would likely be opposed in the House of Lords, where previous efforts have foundered.

Peter Tatchell, the veteran gay-rights campaigner, said: "There is a ban on same-sex marriage and that is homophobic. Any gay rights organisation should be fighting to overturn it. Separate isn't equal."