Culture Secretary Maria Miller has promised no church would ever be forced to conduct a gay wedding as she faced a furious backlash from traditionalist Tories over Government plans for same-sex weddings.
Announcing the Government's formal response to the public consultation, Mrs Miller said she was putting in place a "quadruple lock" to guarantee religious organisations would not have to marry same-sex couples against their wishes.
However, the move did little to assuage the anger on the Conservative benches, where the proposals were denounced as an attack on the centuries-old definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Church leaders also warned they would continue to oppose the change when ministers publish detailed legislation in the new year.
At the same time there was a mixed response from gay rights campaigners, with some warning that planned specific exemptions for the Church of England and the Church in Wales could leave them open to legal challenge.
In the Commons, Mrs Miller told MPs that her proposals to allow same-sex marriage in England and Wales was built on Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to freedom of religion. Mrs Miller - who confirmed that Tory MPs would be given a free vote on the issue - said she would now continue to consult on how best to implement the measures.
"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."
In the Commons chamber, however, a series of Conservative backbenchers rose to condemn the plans. Stewart Jackson said the consultation process had resembled a "Liberian presidential election". For Labour, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper condemned the "hysterical" language used by opponents of change and said that continuing to deny gay people the right to marry would be "unfair and out of date".
The Anglican Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Rev Tim Stephens, said the Government was opening up a "troubling" division between the political class and the vast majority of practising religious people. "Marriage is not the property of the Government nor is it the property of the Church," he said. "Marriage is a union of one man and one woman, a social institution that pre-dates both Church and State and has been the glue that has bound countless successive societies together."
Ed Miliband criticised the Church of England legal bar and pointedly noted that his shadow cabinet was united in favour of gay marriage as well as the "vast majority" of Labour MPs. "I am pleased that the Government will finally bring forward legislation to allow equal marriage and that we have succeeded in making sure that religious organisations that want to carry out same-sex marriages will be able to do so," he said. "However, it is disappointing that the Government is making same-sex marriage illegal in the Church of England."
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are to join the Tories in offering MPs a free vote on the issue, it was confirmed. Mr Clegg signalled that his MPs would not be whipped to support the Government but said he fully expected them to vote in favour anyway.