Heterosexual couples should not be allowed to enter into civil partnerships with one another, the court of appeal has ruled.
But one appeal court judge said the law needed to be changed immediately, while two other judges said the government could have longer to review the law.
The decision follows a three-year legal campaign by two Londoners, Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, who reject traditional marriage on the grounds that it is a “sexist” and “patriarchal” institution.
Denying them the right to enter into a civil partnership – a choice open to same-sex couples – was discriminatory, they had argued.
Keidan and Steinfeld lost by a majority of two to one in the appeal court judgment.
All three judges – Lady Justice Arden, Lord Justice Briggs and Lord Justice Beatson – agreed that the discrimination against heterosexual couples could not last indefinitely.
Only Arden said the government needed to change the law immediately. The other two judges in effect said ministers can have longer to review the situation.
Louise Whitfield, from the law firm Deighton Pierce Glynn who represented the couple, said: “This is very frustrating. It was such a narrow win for the government. They all agreed that the government was living on borrowed time and that there had been a potential violation of their rights.
“Lady Justice Arden said that the government had run out of time already. The other two judges, however, allowed the government a bit more time to consider the issue.”
Outside the court, Keidan and Steinfeld said they would appeal to the supreme court to overturn the decision – unless the government changed its mind.
Steinfeld said: “We are deeply disappointed by the ruling and very sorry to not be able to share good news, but there’s so much in the decision that gives us reason to be positive and keep going.”
Keidan added: “We are determined to go on with our battle. There are 3 million same-sex couples who are cohabiting in this country. We want to challenge this ruling in the supreme court but we hope it won’t be necessary. Defeat is hard to accept today but it gives us a chance to regroup and move on. There’s cross-party support for us now.”
Tim Loughton, a Conservative MP and former children’s minister who supported the couple, was also at the hearing.
He said he believed as many as 40 Tory MPs as well as the main opposition parties backed opening up civil partnerships to heterosexual couples.
“We will see what bills there are in the Queen’s speech and I hope there will be one where we can stretch it to put in some equality amendment,” he said.
Peter Tatchell, who has campaigned for equal rights, was in court. “I’m hugely disappointed with the ruling since the judges agreed with 90% of Charles’s and Rebecca’s case,” he said.
“They accepted the points of law but believed the government should have extra time. Millions of different sex couples will feel that their rights have not been upheld by the court.
“The judgment goes against the principle that we should be equal before the law.”
The Isle of Man is the only part of the British Isles that offers heterosexual couples the opportunity to enter into civil partnerships.