The culture secretary, Maria Miller, has embarked on a year-long battle to persuade her party to embrace same-sex marriage, promising to secure ironclad guarantees that no religious groups would be required to conduct such ceremonies against their will. The plans make provisions for the first weddings to take place in 2014.
Miller sought to reassure Tory MPs – dozens of whom are planning to vote against the plan – by offering a quadruple-lock guarantee that the European court of human rights would not be allowed to interfere. She also announced she was banning the Church of England from offering same-sex marriage without fresh primary legislation.
Tory sources claimed 60% of its MPs will support the legislation, with 40% opposed or planning to abstain until they have seen the detail, and insist it will reach the statute book since 80% of Labour MPs are thought to be in favour.
Defending the plans from a barrage of hostile backbench questions, Miller told the Commons: "In each century parliament has acted – sometimes radically – to ensure that marriage reflects our society to keep it relevant and meaningful. Marriage is not static; it has evolved and parliament has chosen to act over the centuries to make it fairer and more equal. We now face another such moment – another such chance in this new century."
Miller tried to calm her backbenchers by insisting no faith group would be forced by the government or European judges to act against their beliefs. "We are 100% clear that if any church, synagogue or mosque does not want to conduct a gay marriage it will not – absolutely must not – be forced to hold it," she said.
David Cameron has pledged to give his MPs, including all government members, a free vote on the bill, which will be introduced in January. Conservative sources are confident the proposals will carry through the Lords without excessive problems.
The consultation, issued by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in the summer, elicited 228,000 responses. Of these, 53% agreed that all couples, regardless of gender, should be able to have a civil marriage ceremony. In addition, mass petitions opposing same sex marriage were received, but to the fury of Tory MPs were excluded since the consultation was about how to introduce same sex marriage, and not whether to do so.In a bid to assuage Tory MPs' fears that religious groups may be forced to hold same-sex marriage ceremonies due to an intervention triggered by the European convention on human rights, Miller promised a quadruple lock, which would:
• Ensure that no religious organisation or individual minister can be compelled to marry same-sex couples or to permit this to happen on their premises.
• Provide an opt-in system for religious organisation who wish to conduct marriages for same-sex couples.
• Amend the Equality Act 2010 to reflect that no discrimination claims can be brought against religious organisations or individual ministers for refusing to marry a same-sex couple.
• Ensure that legislation will not affect the canon law of the Church of England or the Church in Wales. As a result, if either church wanted to conduct a same-sex marriage, it would require a change to primary legislation at a later date and a change to canon law.
The Church of England had warned that canon law could not conflict with government statute, but Miller said parliament was supreme and could state that church canon law could be different from statute.
The government response to the consultation points out that "in the past the legislature has sought to avoid conflict with canon law position by the use of exemption and conscience clauses so that the church might take a position in conscience that is consistent with its teaching on the nature of marriage".
Miller said: "The system of locks will iron-clad the protection in law, adding to the existing protections in European legislation, so that those who do not want to conduct same-sex marriages will never have to".
Religious groups that wish to opt in to holding same-sex ceremonies include the Unitarian and Quaker churches, but Miller said individual church ministers in such churches would be free to opt out. Equally, if anAnglican vicar wished to hold a same-sex marriage at a time when the church was opposed to such marriage, that ceremony would not be recognised in law.
Miller refused to be drawn on whether she thought the Church of England should recognise same-sex marriages, saying it was a matter for the church. She has criticised the church for failing to support female bishops.
The proposals oppose extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. Adultery will be allowed to be a cause for divorce in same-sex marriages, but non-consummation of marriage will not.
The existing 50,000 civil partnerships will be capable of conversion to a full marriage for a fee of around £100. There will be no time limit on these conversions and couples will be able to have a ceremony on conversion if they wish.
In response to claims that teachers would be forced to support same sex marriages in the classroom, the government insisted that "… teachers, particularly in faith schools, will be able to continue to describe their belief that marriage is between a man and a woman while acknowledging and acting within the new legislative position which enables same-sex couples to get married".
It added that teachers "should ensure their personal beliefs are not expressed in a way that exploits pupils' vulnerability or involves discriminating against them".
"Every school is required to ensure pupils are not taught anything that is inappropriate to their age, religious or cultural background. This will not change and pupils will continue to receive broad and balanced advice on marriage."
She admitted the law was complex, but that was no excuse for "misunderstanding the facts" and pointed out that the European convention on human rights put beyond doubt the protection of religious organisations from conducting same-sex marriages against their wishes.