Gay couples to tie the knot in first same-sex marriages in Britain

By Julia Fioretti LONDON (Reuters) - Peter McGraith and David Cabreza will marry in London a stroke after midnight on Friday, marking the culmination of a campaign to end a distinction many British gay couples say made them feel like second class citizens. Saturday will be the first day gay couples will be allowed to tie the knot in England and Wales after the government legalised same-sex marriage last July. Gay couples have been allowed since 2005 to enter "civil partnerships", conferring the same legal rights as marriage, but campaigners say the distinction gives the impression that society considers gay relationships inferior. "It's back of the bus thinking," McGraith said, comparing the rule on civil partnerships to segregation in the pre-civil rights United States when black Americans had to sit in the back of public buses. "You understand that sense of the whole wedding thing and baby showers and of it being an indulgence of other people's and not ours," he said. Emma Powell, 29, agreed. She will marry her partner Sarah Keith, 30, on Saturday in Brighton, a resort town on England's southern coast with a vibrant gay community. "This notion of separate but equal makes you feel like a second class citizen," she said. The law's passage last summer caused deep splits in Prime Minister David Cameron's ruling Conservative Party, where many are opposed to same-sex marriage because it contradicts their Christian beliefs. But Cameron himself has always supported gay marriage and said last year: "It's been a real pleasure to ... deliver this landmark social change for our country, which to me still comes back to the simple word of commitment." Rainbow-colored flags, international symbols of the gay movement, will be flying over London's government quarter of Whitehall over the weekend, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said on Thursday. RELIGIOUS OPPOSITION Gay marriage has faced opposition from most religious groups despite shifting public attitudes in Britain in favor of it. The Church of England, which leads the world's 80 million Anglicans, has struggled to reconcile rifts within its ranks over homosexuality as it seeks to tackle rising secularism and falling attendance rates. In new guidelines issued last month, it barred priests from conducting gay and lesbian weddings or giving a formal blessing for a same-sex marriage performed by local government registrars. Only an informal blessing would be allowed. The Anglican Communion, linking Anglicans across and beyond the English-speaking world, has been split for years over gay rights and Biblical authority, especially since its U.S. branch - the Episcopal Church - ordained a gay bishop in 2003. The leading Muslim, Catholic and Sikh groups in Britain were all against the passage of the same-sex marriage law. But for McGraith, religious opposition is not a concern. "It (same-sex marriage) is not a legal issue, it's a civil matter and I think that's where it should stay," he said. Several businesses, for their part, have lent their support for this weekend's landmark. Ice-cream brand Ben & Jerry's will be scooping out its marriage equality flavor "apple-y ever after" in a London gay club on Friday while menswear retailer Moss Bros launched a wedding campaign this week featuring a same-sex couple in its store windows. NOT THE APOTHEOSIS While the number of countries legalizing gay marriage has grown significantly since the Netherlands made the first move in 2000, only 17 currently allow gay couples to marry. France legalised it last year despite several protests drawings hundreds of thousands onto the streets of Paris. Scotland, which will hold a referendum on independence from Britain in September, was the latest country to pass same-sex marriage legislation last month, despite strong opposition from the Scottish Catholic Church and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. In some other parts of the world, governments have been moving in the opposite direction, clamping down on gay rights. Uganda attracted international opprobrium in December when it passed a controversial law that makes some homosexual acts punishable by life in prison. Homosexuality is illegal in 37 African countries. Russia also faced criticism over a law signed by President Vladimir Putin last year banning the spread of "gay propaganda" among minors. In England and Wales, homosexuality was decriminalized in 1967, starting off a series of reforms to give gay people the same rights as everyone else. But McGraith cautioned that there is still a long road ahead for gay rights across the world. "If we'd already got to a point where our rights were well recognized around the world, there would be so little attention paid to one little island bringing in an equal marriage," he said. "Marriage is not the apotheosis of gay rights and emancipation." (Reporting by Julia Fioretti; Editing by Tom Heneghan)