These equal marriage reforms are historic, because in 21st century Britain the meaning of family goes beyond man, woman and child

The Deputy Prime Minister hails the historic social reform announced today

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The Independent Online

This week the Coalition confirmed that we will make marriage equal for everyone. Same sex couples will be able to get married. And religious organisations who want to conduct those ceremonies will be able to do so.

This has sparked considerable controversy. It’s an issue that always does. Gay couples already have virtually the same legal entitlements through civil partnerships that heterosexual couples have through marriage. But the label is the sticking point – marriage means different things to different people.

For some, marriage has a specific religious meaning. Their convictions prevent them from extending its definition to include same sex couples. And, throughout this debate, it’s become increasingly clear to me that lots of people think of marriage in terms of family – and family in its most traditional, biological sense, where husbands and wives have sons and daughters.

But, while I can understand those views, I don’t share them. My starting point is different. For me, what defines marriage, very simply, is love and commitment.

And, in 21st Century Britain, families come in every shape and size. Across the nation today you will find all manner of relationships: gay couples; straight couples; adopted sons; fostered daughters; married couples; divorced couples; cohabiting couples; surrogate parents; single parents; step parents, godparents, grandparents.

Yes, many homes contain a man and a woman who have children – but that isn’t the only hallmark of a family. There are many heterosexual couples who get married but who cannot, or do not, have children. Yet they constitute a family just as much as everyone else. Procreation isn’t the only thing that counts. What makes a happy family – and happy marriage – is love and commitment. And the more of that, the better.

So it’s high time we recognise, and celebrate, loving, caring relationships – whether they are between men and women, women and women, men and men. If that couple want to get married, it will be their choice.

No church or religious organisation will be forced to conduct equal marriages. I want to be crystal clear about that. But religious freedom has another side too: it’s also about ensuring that, where a faith organisation wants to marry same-sex couples, such as the Quakers, they can.

So, we’ve consulted, we’ve debated, and we’re now within a whisker of equal marriage rights for all couples – gay or straight. That’s a big shift, totemic and profound. And I’m proud to be part of the government that will deliver it.