Marriage 'should be for everyone'
Marriage is "a celebration of love and should be open to everyone", Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone said as she published plans to legalise gay civil marriage.
She signalled the Government's determination to make the change by 2015, at an expected cost of £4 million, putting ministers on collision course with church leaders and many Conservatives.
Tory MPs are expected to be offered a free vote when legislation championed by Prime Minister David Cameron comes before the Commons in a bid to prevent an embarrassing backbench revolt.
Under the plans put out for consultation, same-sex couples will be entitled to get married in a register office or other civil ceremonies, or convert existing civil partnerships. Existing marriages in which one partner changed their sex would also no longer have to be ended.
The blueprint however, also endorsed by home Secretary Theresa May, maintains a legal ban on same-sex religious services despite some churches expressing an interest in conducting them.
Nor does it anticipate allowing heterosexual couples to enter civil partnerships, the state-recognised partnerships introduced in 2005 as a first step towards gay marriage.
In a joint foreword, the two ministers said the present discrimination was unacceptable. "Put simply, it's not right that a couple who love each other and want to formalise a commitment to each other should be denied the right to marry," they wrote.
The reforms have sparked a wave of religious fury, with Britain's most senior Catholic branding the proposal a "grotesque subversion of a universally acknowledged human right".
Many Tory MPs are also known to be hostile to the change which is seen as an example of Liberal Democrat influence on coalition policy despite Mr Cameron's public support. Half the party's grassroots supporters are against the change, a recent poll suggested, though it was backed by a margin of 45% to 36% among the wider public.
The Prime Minister championed reform in his party conference speech, declaring: "I don't support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I'm a Conservative." But it is understood party whips are set to ensure the issue is treated as a matter of conscience when it is ready to be debated by Parliament amid fears of a major revolt.