LONDON - The British government announced Tuesday that it will introduce a bill next year legalizing gay marriage — but banning the Church of England from conducting same-sex ceremonies.
Equalities minister Maria Miller said the legislation would authorize same-sex civil marriages, as well as religious ceremonies if religions decide to "opt in."
"I feel strongly that, if a couple wish to show their love and commitment to each other, the state should not stand in their way," Miller said.
"For me, extending marriage to same-sex couples will strengthen, not weaken, this vital institution."
Some religious groups, such as Quakers and liberal Jews, say they want to conduct same-sex ceremonies. But others, including the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, oppose gay marriage.
Miller said the legislation would make it unlawful for the Church of England — the country's official church, symbolically headed by Queen Elizabeth II — and the Anglican Church in Wales to conduct gay weddings. The government does not have the same legal authority over other churches, but hopes that the ban for the Church of England will reassure religious opponents of same-sex marriage that they will not be forced to take part.
It also will ensure that religious organizations or ministers who refuse to marry a same-sex couple can't be sued for discrimination.
"No religious organization will ever be forced to conduct marriages for same-sex couples," Miller told lawmakers.
Since 2005, gay couples in Britain have been able to form civil partnerships, which gives them the same legal protection, adoption and inheritance rights as heterosexual married partners — but not the label of marriage.
The government's announcement was welcomed by gay rights campaigners, but condemned by some religious leaders, including some of those within the Church of England.
Bishop of Leicester Timothy Stevens underscored the church's official view that "marriage is a union between one man and one woman — a social institution that predates both church and state and has been the glue that has bound countless successive societies together."
Anglicans are divided on the issue, however. Richard Harries, a former bishop of Oxford, told the House of Lords that "a good number of members of the Church of England warmly welcome the government's position."
"Privately a fair number of individual bishops in the Church of England also support it but are not able to say so publicly at the moment," he said.
The bill is likely to have enough support in Parliament to become law. Gay marriage is backed by Britain's Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and many of his Cabinet, as well as by most lawmakers from the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties.
But some traditionalist members of Cameron's Conservative Party remain strongly opposed.
"I would like to ask the Secretary of State and the government what right have they got, other than arrogance and intolerance, to stamp their legislative boot on religious faith?" said lawmaker Richard Drax.