Ministers will hit back next week at criticism by church leaders opposed to their plans to legalise gay marriage by accusing them of "polarising" the debate.
A draft of the Government's plans, leaked to The Independent, shows that ministers will seek to reassure religious groups by promising they will not be forced to carry out same-sex marriages, which will be limited to register offices and venues approved for civil marriages.
The document, drawn up by the Government Equalities Office at the Home Office, calls for a "rational debate". It says outspoken attacks by several church leaders, who have condemned the move as "grotesque" and accused David Cameron of behaving like a dictator, should not allow the discussion to become "a battle between gay rights and religious beliefs".
Lynne Featherstone, the Liberal Democrat Equalities Minister, will launch a formal 12-week consultation process next week. The Government will not include legislation in the Queen's Speech in May, saying that would pre-empt the consultation. But the decision will disappoint gay rights groups. Ministers are expected to confirm in the autumn that the law will be changed before the next general election due in 2015.
Arguing that gay marriage would "strengthen family ties", the Home Office document says: "The Government recognises the commitment by same-sex couples in a civil partnership is the same as the commitment made by opposite-sex couples in a civil marriage. It therefore makes no sense to ban same-sex couples from getting married through a civil ceremony."
The draft proposals, which have been sent to ministers, say: "We recognise the vital role religious organisations have in our society and the role that religious organisations have in marriage. A marriage through a religious ceremony and on religious premises will continue to only be legally possible between a man and a woman... We are not redefining how religious organisations see marriage; they are free to define marriage as they wish."
Ms Featherstone will confirm that the Government has dropped plans to allow men and women who do not wish to marry to enter into civil partnership. "We are not aware of a widespread demand for civil partnerships to be available to opposite-sex couples," says the document.
It notes that civil partnerships and civil marriage are separate legal regimes, saying some people have argued that having two different systems for same and opposite-sex couples "perpetuates misconceptions and discrimination."
On transgender groups, the report says: "Those wishing to change their legal gender are required to end their existing marriage or civil partnership. The consultation will rectify this difficult situation by enabling couples already married to remain married, and enable those in a civil partnership to convert this into a marriage."
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