Owen Paterson's opposition to gay marriage stokes up battle
Gay rights campaigners have slammed Secretary of State Owen Paterson's opposition to same-sex marriage.
Mr Paterson is the first cabinet member to pronounce himself against government moves to change the law.
The coalition government is currently consulting on plans to change the law to allow same-sex marriage.
As a devolved matter, any changes would not apply automatically in Northern Ireland, which hosted the UK's first ever same-sex civil partnership in 2005.
His comments, made in a letter to a constituent, have stirred up a hornets’ nest.
Mr Paterson's letter to constituent Andrew Smith said: “Having considered this matter carefully, I am afraid that I have come to the decision not to support gay marriage.”
In the letter, Mr Paterson also said the government was committed to equality for gay people and had already changed the law to allow religious premises to host same-sex civil partnerships.
John O'Doherty, director of the Belfast-based Rainbow Project charity, said: “It is disappointing that a government minister can from one side of his mouth support the government’s moves towards equality of [gay] people but opposes moves to address such a fundamental inequality.
“Marriage should be available to all consenting adults, regardless of their sexual orientation.
“The introduction of gay marriage will not impact on anybody, except same-sex couples wishing to avail of them,” he added.
Two rival campaigns are under way — the Coalition for Marriage, which wants to preserve the marital status quo, and the Coalition for Equal Marriage, which wants to change it.
Among over 500,000 signatories on the Coalition for Marriage website are DUP MPs and Ulster Unionist peer Lord Maginnis.
The DUP’s Nigel Dodds said he was not surprised at Mr Paterson's views.
He said: “I know that Owen Paterson takes these views. And I know that there are other ministers who take exactly the same view. I would encourage them to speak out as well.”
David Cameron has backed the campaign, telling last year's Tory party conference: “I don't support gay marriage in spite of being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.”
Vernon Coaker, Labour's Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, said he “fully supported” the campaign for equal marriage.
He added: “I have always been in favour of equal rights for everybody in the eyes of the law.”