Plans for gay couples to be allowed to marry in churches or other religious buildings, as well as secular settings, are to be set out next week by the Coalition Government.
David Cameron’s move delighted campaigners for marriage equality, but it will put him on a collision course with church leaders and many Conservative MPs who insist weddings can only take place between a man and a woman.
Tonight the Prime Minister was warned he would split his party by trying to force through the move, which is backed by the overwhelming majority of Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs.
The Government initially intended to legislate for same-sex marriage in approved premises such as register offices and hotels, but has now significantly widened its proposals.
Under the revised plans, religious institutions would also have the right to marry gay couples, although Whitehall sources stressed that the planned legislation would make explicit that churches would not be forced to conduct same-sex ceremonies against their will.
It is understood the change followed advice by Government lawyers that a blanket ban on religious weddings could be challenged in court, while a system allowing churches or other groups to “opt in” to conduct ceremonies would be legally watertight.
Mr Cameron had told colleagues he wants to press ahead with legislation quickly, arguing the step is a simple matter of equality and fairness. It is expected it will be published by March with a view to becoming law towards the end of 2013.
The Prime Minister 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.”
The Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church strongly opposed same-sex marriage during recent consultation on the proposals, but the Quakers, Unitarians and Liberal Jews are among groups that are expected to apply to stage ceremonies.
Benjamin Cohen, of Out4Marriage, which is in favour of same-sex weddings, said: “We’re delighted to hear the Government will be legislating to introduce full equal marriage including same-sex marriages solemnised by religious ministers.”
But Colin Hart, campaign director for the Coalition For Marriage, which opposes the move, said: “The decision to press ahead with the profoundly undemocratic proposals to rewrite the traditional meaning of marriage is deeply disappointing and regrettable. What is even more alarming is the PM has gone back on his promises that churches will be protected.”
More than 100 Conservative MPs are expected to oppose same-sex marriage in a free vote on the proposals. Many backbenchers say the move has enraged party activists and constituents.
Stewart Jackson, the MP for Peterborough, predicted Mr Cameron would regret the move. He said: “There is no mandate for this. It was not in our election manifesto. It is being foisted on the Conservative Party.”