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MP's plea in same-sex marriage row

Equalities Minister Maria Miller pleaded for both sides in the row over same-sex marriages to show "respect" as she was confronted with opposition to the plan from MPs in her own party.

Tory backbenchers called for the plans to be postponed until after the next election and insisted there was no public majority in favour of allowing gay couples to wed.

Under the proposals set out by Mrs Miller, a "quadruple lock" of safeguards would allow religious groups to opt-in to allow gay marriages in their places of worship but would provide legal protection for those opposed to the move.

In a statement to the Commons, Mrs Miller said the proposals "strike the right balance" between "protecting important religious freedoms while ensuring that same-sex couples have the same freedom to marry as opposite-sex couples".

Shadow equalities minister Yvette Cooper condemned the "hysterical" language used by Tory MPs and churches opposed to the move.

"It is deeply disappointing that some in this House yesterday wanted to link same-sex marriage with polygamy or to suggest that it was somehow an affront to those in so-called normal marriages," she said.

"I hope those who oppose these plans in this House and also some church leaders will think carefully and not repeat some of the hysterical language that they have used before."

Mrs Miller said: "None of us ... should try and polarise this debate. The language that we use and the stance that we take is looked at far and wide.

"People will be looking at how we deal with these issues and I hope that the respect that I am showing to religious institutions and also to people in same-sex relationships is something that Honourable Members will appreciate and also try and echo in their comments as well."

The entrenched nature of opposition to the plans among some Conservative MPs was revealed in the very first question Mrs Miller faced from her own side.

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) told her it was a "major social change that many of those we represent find unacceptable" and the measure should be allowed to "evolve rather than be pushed through".

He asked Mrs Miller to agree "to seek an electoral mandate before proceeding" which would effectively rule out any progress on the policy before the 2015 poll.

The minister told him the Conservatives' commitment on the issues was set out alongside the party's manifesto at the time of the 2010 election.

Tory Nick Herbert, an openly gay former minister, offered his backing for the Government, saying Mrs Miller was right to say the proposal "commands widespread support in the country".

But he was heckled by fellow Conservative Peter Bone (Wellingborough), who interrupted to say "no it doesn't".

Tory Sir Roger Gale said the letters he had received from his North Thanet constituents suggested 98% were against the plan.

Mrs Miller set out the proposals as the latest in a series of reforms to the marriage laws over the centuries.

"For some, this is contentious, a radical reform or indeed a reform too far," she said.

"But the historical facts show that over the generations marriage has had a long history of evolution."

She said Parliament had acted to ensure marriage was kept "relevant and meaningful".

"For me, extending marriage to same-sex couples will strengthen, not weaken, this vital institution," she said.

The plan will allow for civil marriages for same-sex couples, with an opt-in for religious ceremonies.

Mrs Miller said the legislation would put "clear and unambiguous" protections for churches who did not wish to marry same-sex couples.

The "quadruple lock" meant:

:: No religious organisation or individual minister can be forced to marry same-sex couples or to permit this to happen on their premises;

:: The Equalities Act will be changed so no discrimination claims can be brought against religious organisations or ministers for refusing to marry a gay couple;

:: It will be unlawful for religious organisations or their ministers to marry same-sex couples unless the organisation has expressly opted to do so, ministers will not be forced to do so even if their governing body has opted-in;

:: The legislation will explicitly state that it will be illegal for the Church of England and the Church in Wales to marry gay couples and Canon Law will also continue to ban same-sex marriages.

Mrs Miller said: "I would never introduce a Bill which encroaches or threatens religious freedoms."

For Labour, Ms Cooper said continuing to deny gay people the right to marry would be "unfair and out of date".

She added: "Freedom of religion also means that those faiths, such as the Quakers or Unitarians and others, who want to be able to celebrate same-sex marriage should be able to do so.

"Those who argue marriage should never change are out of touch with public feeling."

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