The Church of England and Church in Wales will be banned from offering same-sex marriages, the government has announced.
All other religious organisations will be able to “opt in” to offering ceremonies, Culture Secretary Maria Miller told MPs, but it will be illegal for the Church of England to offer gay marriage ceremonies.
The first gay weddings could take place in just over a year’s time after the Coalition Government detailed its plans this afternoon to legalise same-sex marriages.
In an attempt to pacify hostile religious leaders and win round Tory opponents, ministers announced a series of safeguards for churches and places of worship that do not want to conduct the ceremonies.
But the measures still ran into fierce criticism from Conservative traditionalists when they were set out by Maria Miller, the Equalities minister, in the Commons.
The equal marriage legislation will now be published in late January, with the intention of pushing it through Parliament by next summer. Under this timetable, the first same-sex weddings could take place in early 2014.
David Cameron, who has repeatedly spoken of his support for the measure, has decided to hold a free vote on the issue.
More than 100 Tories – including several ministers – are expected to vote against the move, although party sources insisted the majority of its MPs would support the reform.
Setting out the Government's plans to allow same-sex marriage, Mrs Miller said she was putting in place a "quadruple legal lock" guaranteeing watertight protection for religious organisations.
She told the House of Commons in a statement that she was building 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 said she would now continue to consult on how best to implement the Government's plans in legislation to be introduced early in the new year.
"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."