Same-sex couples in England and Wales are set to be allowed to marry, under plans announced today by Culture Secretary Maria Miller in the House of Commons.

Following a government consultation, legislation allowing same-sex marriage will be brought forward next year.

Although the Catholic Church and Church of England are opposed to equal marriage, faith groups such as the Quakers, Unitarians and Liberal Judaism support marriage rights for gay couples and have stated they would like to provide the ceremonies.

Mrs Miller said the proposals are designed to create watertight protections for religious organisations that do not want to conduct same-sex marriages, but will allow them to ‘opt in’ if they so chose.

“Marriage is one of the most important institutions we have in this country. It binds us together, brings long-term commitment and stability, and makes society stronger. Our proposals mean that marriage would be available to everyone. I feel strongly that, if a couple wish to show their love and commitment to each other, the state should not stand in their way”.

Mrs Miller continued:

“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 allowed that. European law already puts religious freedom 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.

“We will continue to work with faith and other interested groups over the coming months on how best to implement our plans. I now look forward to a free, open and rigorous debate on the legislation, which we will introduce early next year.”

Speaking in favour of equal marriage last Friday, David Cameron said he did not want gay couples to be excluded from a “great institution”.

Mr Cameron first raised the prospect of marriage reform when he responded to a PinkNews.co.uk question on equal marriage by saying in 2010: “I want to do everything I can to support commitment and I’m open to changing things further to guarantee equality.”

The historic move will mean that for the first time gay couples will be able to get married in civil ceremonies; religious organisations who decide to ‘opt in’ will be able to conduct marriage ceremonies for gay couples; and a ‘quadruple lock’ of measures in domestic legislation would protect religious freedom, putting beyond doubt the possibility of a successful challenge through domestic or European courts.

European law already puts protection for religious freedom beyond doubt (under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights) but the government intends to go even further and put in place a ‘quadruple lock’ in domestic law.

It will be unlawful for religious organisations, or their ministers, to marry gay couples unless the organisation’s governing body has expressly opted in to do so.

The Equality Act 2010 is to be amended to ensure that no discrimination claim could be brought against religious organisations or an individual minister for refusing to marry gay couples (or allowing their premises to be used for this purpose).

The bill will explicitly state that it would be illegal for the Church of England and the Church in Wales to marry gay couples, or to opt-in to do so.

Canon law – which bans the marriage of same-sex couples – will continue to apply; meaning it would require a change in both primary and Canon law before the Church of England and the Church in Wales would be able to provide marriages for gay couples.