Ministers ready for gays to marry in churches

Gay marriages are to be allowed in churches and other religious buildings under Government plans to be expanded by Culture Secretary Maria Miller next week.

Under the proposals, revealed yesterday, religious organisations which do not want to host same-sex weddings will be given an absolute guarantee they will not be forced to do so.

Whitehall sources said the best way to make the guarantee “water-tight” is to allow religions to opt in to hosting same-sex ceremonies if they want to.

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The move threatens to put Prime Minister David Cameron on a collision course with some of his own backbenchers, who insist that marriage should be allowed only between a man and a woman.

Churches including the Church of England and Roman Catholics voiced opposition to same-sex marriage during a Home Office consultation this summer.

Some religious groups, including Quakers, Unitarians and Liberal Judaism, are in favour of gay marriage and are thought likely to apply to be allowed to stage ceremonies.

Under the plans to be unveiled in the House of Commons next week by Mrs Miller, religious organisations which do not want to hold same-sex weddings will be given explicit legal protection.

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But it became clear during the consultation that legal challenges to that protection would be more likely to succeed if a blanket ban was imposed. Government lawyers believe that providing an opt-in arrangement will prevent a successful challenge.

A Government spokesman said: “The Government is committed to bringing equal civil marriage forward and the consultation results will be announced next week. We are very clear that religious organisations must be protected and that no religious organisation will be forced to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies. The European Convention on Human Rights guarantees freedom of religion and we will additionally bring in very strong legal locks to ensure the protection is watertight.”

The proposals originally put forward in March envisaged no change to the rules for religious marriages, suggesting that same-sex marriage would be permitted only in approved premises such as register offices and hotels.

Quakers welcomed the change adding that they had no intention of imposing gay marriage on other groups.

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Paul Parker, recording clerk for Quakers in Britain, said: “Quakers have been discussing sexuality for 50 years and in 2009 that led us to seek a change in the law so that all marriages in Quaker meeting houses, of whatever sex, can be prepared, celebrated, witnessed, reported to the state, and recognised as legally valid, without further process. We are waiting for the law to catch up. For Quakers, this is an issue of religious freedom and we don’t seek to impose this on others.”

Speaking yesterday, Prime Minister David Cameron said: “I’m a massive supporter of marriage and I don’t want gay people to be excluded from a great institution.

“But let me be absolutely 100 per cent clear, if there is any church or any synagogue or any mosque that doesn’t want to have a gay marriage it will not, absolutely must not, be forced to hold it. That is absolutely clear in the legislation. Also let me make clear, this is a free vote for Members of Parliament but personally I will be supporting it.”

Benjamin Cohen, of Out4Marriage, which has been campaigning for same-sex weddings, said: “Legislation must give individual religious organisations the freedom to decide for themselves whether to hold same-sex marriages. None should be forced to, but those that wish to must be given the rights to do so.”