Maria Miller, the UK minister for women and equalities, has unveiled the government’s proposal for marriage equality in England and Wales.
In a statement to the House of Commons, the Culture Secretary confirmed same-sex marriage will be allowed in churches and other religious buildings as long as they wish to hold them.
Miller said the government would ensure the necessary legal safeguards were in place to ensure religious organisations were not forced to conduct gay weddings because of fears of a legal challenge.
‘Marriage is one of the most important insitutions we have in this country,’ she said. ‘It binds us together, brings long-term commitment and stability, and makes society stronger.
‘Our proposals mean that marriage would be available to everyone.
‘I feel strongly that, if a couple wish to show their love and commitment to each other, the state should not stand in their way.’
Referring to how straight men and women of different races could not get married not so long ago, and how it is only now men and women are equal in marriage, Miller said ‘marriage has had a long history of evolution’.
To stop same-sex couples from suing religious organizations, Miller outlined a ‘quadruple lock’.
Firstly, it will be written on the face of the bill, and secondly, the equality act will be amended.
Thirdly, the proposal states if a religious organization says they will not bless same-sex unions, all of their ministers will be unable to marry gay couples. If a religious organization says they will allow same-sex unions, each minister will have to opt in or out of marrying gay couples.
Finally, the bill will explicitly ban the Church of England and the Church of Wales from conducting gay marriage ceremonies.
Gay Conservative and former Home Office minister Nick Herbert, who is in a civil partnership, said today’s announcement should reassure church groups.
Miller refused to give interviews earlier today after Conservative newspaper The Telegraph revealed she had claimed parliamentary expenses for a home that her parents were staying in. In response, Miller said she was living with her family at the time.
In her statement, she said there have been a record 228,000 responses to the UK consultation.
Marriage equality has split the Conservative party between the traditionalists and those who believe politics should move beyond social issues.
Nearly 40%, 118 Tory members of parliament out of 303, have said they will vote against the bill or are uneasy about the government plans.
When there is a free vote in the House of Commons, MPs will be able to go against the PM’s decision without facing disciplinary action.
He said: ‘There are those in the Conservative Party who disagree. I have always said it is going to be a free vote and that free vote applies to everybody, so I won’t be whipping people or pressurising people.
‘This is a matter for parliament. I think we just have to be grown up and accept that in a modern party, sometimes we will have issues of conscience where people will vote in different ways.’
Despite fierce opposition, many senior Conservatives have come out in support of gay marriage.
UK-based gay rights charity Stonewall has praised the government’s response, with the Chief Executive Ben Summerskill saying he was ‘delighted’ with the statement.
‘We’re particularly pleased that ministers have been persuaded to extend their original proposal in order to permit same-sex marriages for those religious denominations that wish to hold them,’ he said. ‘This is an important matter of religious freedom.
‘While we fully respect the point of view of those who oppose the government’s plans, our advice to them remains that if you don’t approve of same-sex marriage, then just make sure you don’t get married to someone of the same sex.’
The marriage equality bill is expected to be voted on in spring 2013, and depending on the vote, fully legalized in 2014.