The deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, has become the most senior figure in the government to voice personal support for religious gay marriage rights today.

In an interview with the Evening Standard, the Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister personally departed from the government’s official policy proposals of allowing gay couples to marry in civil ceremonies but continuing to bar them from a religious union.

Mr Clegg said: “This is a personal view at the moment, but I think that in exactly the same way that we shouldn’t force any church to conduct gay marriage, we shouldn’t stop any church that wants to conduct gay marriage.”

He said he did not see why a couple who wanted “to show commitment to each other should not be able to do so in a way that is socially recognised as being marriage”.

The government’s public consultation on how to introduce marriage rights for gay couples closed last month.

Religious marriage rights for gay couples are backed by the Liberal strands of Judaism, the Quakers and the Unitarians.

The Labour Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper has written for PinkNews.co.uk in support of the introduction of legislation which would allow gay couples to marry in such ceremonies and hosted a summit yesterday with representatives of those faiths and senior figures from the Church of England yesterday to discuss religious freedom and equal marriage rights.

Home Office Minister Nick Herbert backed equal religious marriage rights for gay couples on similar grounds to Mr Clegg’s last month.

Mr Clegg continued this morning: “I have a very strong sensation that once the dust settles everyone will look back and think, ‘what on earth was the controversy about? It just seems a perfectly natural thing to do’. I don’t think it is anything to get hot under the collar about, or aggressive or polemical.”

Benjamin Cohen of Out4Marriage said of Mr Clegg’s comments: “We welcome the decision by Nick Clegg to support religious same sex marriage because without allowing this permissive change in the law, all the Government would really be doing is changing the name of civil partnerships to civil marriages.

“Religious same sex marriage is important. There are many couples who are religious and there are many religious ministers who believe in equality. True equality means allowing same-sex couples to marry within religious institutions that wish to do so while maintaing the right for religious institutions to refuse. No religious institution should be forced to conduct same sex marriages but those that wish to should be allowed to because religious freedom is important too.

“Out4Marriage is glad that the continued pressure that we are putting on the Government over religious same sex marriage is being listened to. It would be a crying shame if the Government banned same-sex couples to marry with equal rights to straight couples while trying to make the civil marriage system more equal.”

Paul Parker, Recording Clerk of Quakers in Britain, said: “Quakers welcome Nick Clegg’s support for our position on this. Quakers see God in everyone and so we would say all committed relationships are of equal worth. We have recognised same-sex couples as married since 2009 and have been waiting for the law to catch up. We will await with interest how the coalition government will make this a reality in law when the report of the recent consultation on equal marriage, which currently extends only to civil marriages, is published.”

Canon Chris Sugden of the group Anglican Mainstream, which is aiding the campaign against marriage equality, told the Standard: “If you remove gender from marriage, then nobody ends up married.”