Controversial legislation to bring in gay marriage was unveiled by the Government yesterday.
Culture Secretary Maria Miller insisted the plans would ensure “equal and fair” treatment for same-sex couples, while protecting religious institutions that do not want to perform ceremonies.
But the Bill is set to encounter fierce resistance from a significant number of Tory MPs who believe marriage should be between a man and a woman.
Mrs Miller said: “Marriage is a hugely important institution in this country – one which has changed throughout our history, and continues to change.
“The values of marriage bind families and communities together and bring stability. I believe that couples should not be excluded from marriage just because they love someone of the same sex. In opening up marriage to same-sex couples, we will further strengthen the importance of marriage in our society.
“Our proposals recognise, respect and value the very important role that faith plays in our lives. I have always been crystal clear that I would not put forward any legislation that did not provide protection for religious organisations. This Bill protects and promotes religious freedom, so that all religious organisations can act according to their doctrines and beliefs.
“Crucially, the Bill recognises the unique legal situation of the Church of England and the Church in Wales. Unlike any other religious organisation in this country, their clergy are subject to a legal duty to marry parishioners. To protect them from legal challenge, therefore, the Bill makes clear that this duty does not extend to same-sex couples. Both Churches have been clear that they do not currently wish to conduct marriages for same-sex couples. If they choose to do so at a later date, they will of course be able to.”
The measures would also allow civil partners to convert their partnership to a marriage, and enable married people to change their legal gender without having to end their union.
MPs will have their first chance to vote on the plans when the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill has its second reading in the House of Commons on February 5.
David Cameron has attempted to head off a rebellion by giving Conservative MPs a free vote on the legislation.
The Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Rev Tim Stevens, said he was grateful to Mrs Miller for the “constructive” way in which she has consulted with the Church of England on effective legal safegards.
“I acknowledge the progress made on that front, and the commitment of the Government to ensuring that the Church’s concerns are properly accommodated in the draft legislation,” he said.
The Bishop said a “central test” of the Bill would be whether it will “preserve and guarantee religious practice and religious conscience”.
Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary and shadow minister for women and equalities, said: “Just as with civil partnerships in 2004, we look forward to passing this Bill into law with Labour votes.”