British Culture Secretary Maria Miller today promised no church would ever be forced to conduct a gay wedding as she faced a furious backlash from traditionalist Tories over Government plans for same-sex weddings.
Announcing the Government’s formal response to the public consultation, Mrs Miller said she was putting in place a “quadruple lock” to guarantee religious organisations would not have to marry same-sex couples against their wishes.
However, the move did little to assuage the anger on the Conservative benches, where the proposals were denounced as an attack on the centuries-old definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
Church leaders also warned they would continue to oppose the change when ministers publish detailed legislation in the new year.
At the same time there was a mixed response from gay rights campaigners, with some warning that planned specific exemptions for the Church of England and the Church in Wales could leave them open to legal challenge.
In the Commons, Mrs Miller told MPs that her proposals to allow same-sex marriage in England and Wales was built on Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to freedom of religion.
Under the Government’s plans, four legal locks will be included on the face of the legislation. They are:
:: No religious organisation or individual minister can be compelled to marry same-sex couples or to permit this to happen on their premises;
:: It will be unlawful for religious organisations or their ministers to marry same-sex couples unless their organisation’s governing body has expressly opted in to provisions for doing so;
:: The Equality Act 2010 is to be amended to ensure no discrimination claim can be brought against religious organisations or individual ministers for refusing to marry a same-sex couple;
:: The legislation will explicitly state that it will be illegal for the Church of England and the Church in Wales to marry same-sex couples and that Canon Law, which bans same-sex weddings, will continue to apply.
Mrs Miller – who confirmed that Tory MPs would be given a free vote on the issue – said she would now continue to consult on how best to implement the measures.
“I am absolutely clear that no religious organisation will ever be forced to conduct marriages for same-sex couples, and I would not bring in a Bill which would allow that,” she said.
“European law already puts religious freedoms beyond doubt, and we will go even further by bringing in an additional ’quadruple legal lock’. But it is also a key aspect of religious freedom that those bodies who want to opt in should be able to do so.”
In the Commons chamber, however, a series of Conservative backbenchers rose to condemn the plans. Stewart Jackson said the consultation process had resembled a “Liberian presidential election”.
“I believe these proposals are a constitutional outrage and a disgrace. There is no electoral mandate for these policies,” he said.
Fellow Tory Richard Drax demanded: “I would like to ask the Secretary of State and the Government what right have they got, other than arrogance and intolerance, to stamp their legislative boot on religious faith?”
There was, however, also some backing for the plans among Tories, with Nick Herbert, an openly gay former minister, saying the proposal “commands widespread support in the country”.
For Labour, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper condemned the “hysterical” language used by opponents of change and said that continuing to deny gay people the right to marry would be “unfair and out of date”.
“Those who argue marriage should never change are out of touch with public feeling,” she said.
The Roman Catholic Archbishops of Westminster and Southwark – Vincent Nichols and Peter Smith – accused ministers of ignoring a petition signed by more than 600,000 people opposing change.
“The process by which this has happened can only be described as shambolic,” they said in a joint statement.
“We urge everyone who cares about upholding the meaning of marriage in civil law to make their views known to their MPs clearly, calmly and forcefully, and without impugning the motives of others. It is not too late to stop this Bill.”
Dr David Landrum of the Evangelical Alliance, representing evangelical Christians, warned that the measures would have “profound and incalculable consequences” for family life in the UK and called on ministers to put them to a popular vote in a referendum.
“The consultation was run like an election in a tinpot state,” he said.
“In light of the momentous nature of what is being proposed for our social constitution, it is not unreasonable to demand a national referendum. The people deserve to have their say on this issue.”
The move was welcomed by the Quakers, who have said they intend to conduct same-sex ceremonies in their meeting houses.
Paul Parker, the recording clerk for Quakers in Britain, said: “The day the first same-sex couple can marry in their Quaker meeting will be a wonderful day for marriage, and a great day for religious freedom in Britain.”
However, veteran human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell denounced the exemption for the Church of England and the Church in Wales as “a disappointing fudge” which could be open to legal challenge.
“Exempting the official established church sends the wrong signal. There is no reason why these churches should be treated differently from other faiths,” he said.
“The Government is treating two churches differently from all other religions. Discriminating between faith groups is probably illegal under the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights.”