Former President Jimmy Carter has said gay people should be allowed to marry in civil ceremonies, as ‘Jesus never said a word about homosexuality’.

The latest book by Mr Carter, now 87, entitled NIV Lessons from Life Bible: Personal Reflections with Jimmy Carter, encompasses his views on the Bible and on gay equality, among other issues. Discussing the book, he told the Huffington Post gay civil marriages were “very fine” in his view.

Mr Carter said: “Homosexuality was well known in the ancient world, well before Christ was born and Jesus never said a word about homosexuality. In all of his teachings about multiple things -– he never said that gay people should be condemned. I personally think it is very fine for gay people to be married in civil ceremonies.

“I draw the line, maybe arbitrarily, in requiring by law that churches must marry people. I’m a Baptist, and I believe that each congregation is autonomous and can govern its own affairs. So if a local Baptist church wants to accept gay members on an equal basis, which my church does by the way, then that is fine. If a church decides not to, then government laws shouldn’t require them to.”

Carter served as the 39th president of the US from 1977 to 1981, founded the Carter Center for the advancement of human rights, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and also works as a Sunday School teacher.

Evan Wolfson, founder and President of Freedom to Marry said: “President Carter’s support for the freedom to marry is a real-life example of practicing what you preach. He has been married for over 65 years and cherishes marriage – and the Golden Rule he has taught in Sunday School for decades says we should treat others as we want to be treated.

“President Carter understands that the love and commitment of marriage matters to gay and lesbian couples and their loved ones, just as to non-gay couples like Rosalynn and him, and that the law should respect us all.

“Ending marriage discrimination helps families, while hurting no one, and that’s why the President, like so many Americans, has opened his heart and changed his mind to join the majority for marriage.”

Bill Clinton, who was the next Democratic president after Jimmy Carter, came out as being “basically in favour of” equal marriage for gays in 2009.