Gay weddings will be held in churches under radical plans to be unveiled by David Cameron, it emerged today.
The Prime Minister is to defy opposition from more than 100 Tory backbenchers to back religious groups hosting same-sex weddings.
He will stop short of forcing groups which are against the policy from having to hold gay weddings, but will argue that homosexual couples should have the same rights as heterosexual partners.
Mr Cameron has been repeatedly told by some Conservatives not to focus on legalising gay marriage, warning the party will see its traditional support base collapse.
But the Tory leader will join Labour’s Ed Miliband and Lib Dem Nick Clegg in arguing that gay couples should be able to tie the knot in a religious setting if they want to.
Speaking after an event in Redditch today, Mr Cameron said: ‘I’m a massive supporter of marriage and I don’t want gay people to be excluded from a great institution.
‘But let me be absolutely 100% clear, if there is any church or any synagogue or any mosque that doesn’t want to have a gay marriage it will not, absolutely must not, be forced to hold it.
‘That is absolutely clear in the legislation. Also let me make clear, this is a free vote for Members of Parliament but personally I will be supporting it.’
Mr Cameron has vowed to legislate before 2015, and next week Culture Secretary Maria Miller will launch the government’s plans in response to this summer’s consultation on the idea.
Government sources said a series of legal locks would ensure the protection of churches was ‘watertight’.
It is expected to allow religious groups to ‘opt-in’ to hosting same sex weddings after vocal support for the policy from groups including Quakers, Unitarians and Jewish Liberals.
However, many churchgoers and religious groups are fiercely opposed to the policy. The move also risks further alienating the Tory leader from some of his backbenchers.
Tory MP Peter Bone said: “Despite the PM’s assurance, the redefinition of marriage — because of the European Convention on Human Rights — will force churches to marry same-sex couples.
‘This will outrage millions of people and hugely damage the Government in electoral terms,’ he told the Evening Standard.
Ms Miller will promise legal ‘locks’ to give groups like the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church protection from being forced to host gay weddings.
Ministers will seek guidance from the Europe to ensure the new rules are not open to legal challenge.
It is thought the plans will include a complex opt-in system, with Ms Miller insisting that groups like Quakers and some Liberal Jews who want to host same-sex weddings should be allowed to do so.
‘I would not introduce a Bill that would in any way impinge on a church’s power to decide who it marries,’ Ms Miller said last month.
‘Marriage is all about creating some stability in society. It is all about helping people have long-term relationships together.
‘I think more people should be married and I don’t think the state should stand in the way of people getting married unless there is a really good reason — and being gay isn’t one of them.’
Government lawyers believe the opt-in to be best way to protect churches who do not want to hold gay weddings.
MPs will be given a free vote on legislation next year and it is expected to be passed with a large majority, with the backing of Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said today on a visit to the South West: ‘I’m a supporter and always have been of same sex marriage, because I think marriage is a wonderful thing, a wonderful institution.
‘It’s a demonstration of a couple’s commitment to each other, of their loving relationship and they wish to celebrate that in the eyes of society and I think we should make that celebration, that ceremony if you like, available to everyone regardless of who they are.
‘It’s very important to remember that in our plans we’re not going to force any church or any religious denomination to hold same sex marriage ceremonies if they don’t want to but I do think it’s time that we allow any couple, no matter who they are, to marry if that’s what they want to do.’
Last month it emerged more than 100 out of 303 Tory MPs have written to constituents indicating their unease at the policy.
If they all vote against the Bill next year, it would be the biggest Tory rebellion in modern times.
Backbencher Douglas Carswell, one of those who will vote against, said: ‘I think you’ve got to have your head stuck in the Westminster bubble to think this is a priority.’
A government spokesman said: ‘The Government is committed to bringing equal civil marriage forward and the consultation results will be announced next week.
‘We are very clear that religious organisations must be protected and that no religious organisation will be forced to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies.
‘The European Convention on Human Rights guarantees freedom of religion and we will additionally bring in very strong legal locks to ensure the protection is water tight.’
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