A rally by the Coalition for Marriage, the campaign group leading the opposition to equal marriage rights for same-sex couples in the UK, has taken place against the backdrop of the Conservative Party Conference.

About 900 people, the majority of them active members of the Conservative Party, crowded into Birmingham Town Hall, earlier this afternoon.

Former Tory MP Ann Widdecombe and Lord Carey, the ex-Archbishop of Canterbury, outlined their staunch opposition to marriage equality.

According to the London Evening Standard, Ms Widdecombe said:

“The real bigots are those who believe that those who dissent have no right to do so, and that the state itself should silence them,” she said. “No society can be free without the freedom to dissent, and no democracy real without the recognition of plurality of views.”

Meanwhile, Lord Carey said: “The family built around a man and woman…  is the fundamental social unit of any society. Now, politicians in some Western countries have declared their intention to redefine marriage and have muscled in on areas of practice, theology and thought that have been the preserve of religious communities.

“We cannot allow politicians to plunder something as sacred as the institution of marriage.”

According to the Independent, several organisations, including the public sector union, the PCS, held a “Picket the Bigots” protest outside the town hall.

Peter Tatchell, the veteran human rights campaigner, said today’s rally had resurrected claims that the Conservatives are still the “nasty party”.

“This is a very unfortunate way to open the Conservative Party Conference.

“It sends a signal that the Tories are still the nasty party, many of whose members continue to support homophobic discrimination despite the attempts of David Cameron to modernise the party. The average person will view this rally as an insight into unreconstructed conservatism”.

Over the weekend, Chancellor George Osborne signalled the government’s policy on equal marriage remained unchanged in an interview to Sky News.

According to the BBC, Foreign Secretary William Hague also gave his backing to the measure, saying: “I will support the prime minister’s position… This is for every MP to decide for themselves and I think that is the right position on a conscience issue.”

The comments from George Osborne and William Hague came as a poll suggested most Tory local party chairmen want the prime minister to drop the plans.

Meanwhile, former shadow home secretary David Davis told a conference fringe event: “Gay marriage is an issue for the church, not the state.”

Mr Davis has stated on his website that he will not be supporting the government’s policy:

“The problem with the government’s proposals is the widespread view they would lead to gay activists, who are actually only a tiny minority of the gay population, demanding weddings in local churches then going to court – possibly successfully – if refused”.

Over the past year, senior ministers have repeatedly stated that religious freedom will be maintained under the proposals.