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'Legal lock' pledge on gay weddings

No church will ever be forced to conduct a gay wedding under new legislation for equal marriage, Culture Secretary Maria Miller has promised.

Setting out the Government's plans to allow same-sex marriage, Mrs Miller said she was putting in place a "quadruple legal lock" guaranteeing watertight protection for religious organisations.

She told the House of Commons in a statement that she was building on Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to freedom of religion.

Under the Government's plans, four legal locks will be included on the face of the legislation. They are:

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

:: It will be unlawful for religious organisations or their ministers to marry same-sex couples unless their organisation's governing body has expressly opted in to provisions for doing so;

:: The Equality Act 2010 is to be amended to ensure no discrimination claim can be brought against religious organisations or individual ministers for refusing to marry a same-sex couple;

:: The legislation will explicitly state that it will be illegal for the Church of England and the Church in Wales to marry same-sex couples and that Canon Law, which bans same-sex weddings, will continue to apply.

Mrs Miller said she would now continue to consult on how best to implement the Government's plans in legislation to be introduced early in the new year.

"I am absolutely clear that no religious organisation will ever be forced to conduct marriages for same-sex couples, and I would not bring in a Bill which would allow that," she said.

"European law already puts religious freedoms beyond doubt, and we will go even further by bringing in an additional 'quadruple legal lock'. But it is also a key aspect of religious freedom that those bodies who want to opt in should be able to do so."

The announcement was warmly welcomed by gay rights campaigners.

"We're particularly pleased that ministers have been persuaded to extend their original proposal in order to permit same-sex marriages for those religious denominations that wish to hold them. This is an important matter of religious freedom," said Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill.

"While we fully respect the point of view of those who oppose the Government's plans, our advice to them remains that if you don't approve of same-sex marriage, then just make sure you don't get married to someone of the same sex."

However, opponents accused ministers of ignoring a petition signed by 500,000 people in their formal response to the consultation on same-sex marriage.

Colin Hart, campaign director of the Coalition For Marriage, said: "The decision to ignore a petition of half a million people is disgraceful and undemocratic and goes against assurances from civil servants that all submissions would be treated equally and fairly.

"There were serious flaws with the consultation; not only was it loaded in favour of ripping up the centuries-old definition of marriage, but lacked even the most basic of safeguards to check the identity of those taking part."

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