The Government has launched a consultation on its plans to widen the definition of marriage to same-sex couples.
The proposal has been strongly criticised by church leaders and Christian groups, who argue that preserving traditional marriage between a man and a woman is fundamental to the wellbeing of society.
A petition opposing the Government’s plans has been signed by more than 207,000 people.
The group behind the petition, the Coalition For Marriage, argues that there is no need to redefine marriage because civil partnerships already provide same-sex couples with all the legal benefits of marriage.
The Prime Minister has expressed his support for the reform of civil marriage laws to allow gay couples to marry.
The consultation is not being carried out to gauge the extent of support for gay marriages, but to consider how they will be implemented.
In an interview with the Independent, Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone gave a “cast-iron guarantee” that civil gay marriage would be law by the next general election in 2015.
“There is no rolling back whatsoever,” she said. “The essential question is not whether we are going to introduce same-sex civil marriage but how.”
She went on to say that the rhetoric from church leaders “adds nothing to the debate”.
“It inflames. On these issues, we have a responsibility in leadership positions to make sure we don’t fan the flames of homophobia.
“I totally respect all of the religious views and understand they are strong and genuinely felt.
“But to use such inflammatory language does not help the debate and does not help their cause.”
She added: “I don’t want to see any polarisation between religious beliefs and gay rights. It is not a competition.”
The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, has said that the Government would be acting like “dictators” if they pushed through gay marriage.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, said the move would be tantamount to “cultural vandalism”.
The head of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O’Brien described homosexuality as an “aberration” and said that changing the law on marriage would be “shaming our country”.
He wrote in The Daily Telegraph: “We are trying to redefine something which has been known and revered for centuries and making it something rather different.
“This is changing the whole notion of what marriage and what a family is. It affects children who are born, who have a right to a mother and father.
“The natural law teaching of what marriage is quite simple. It is natural for a man and woman to be together for the procreation and education of children and for their own mutual love.
“I think that it is time now to call a halt to what you might call progress. I do not call what is happening nowadays progress.
"I would say that countries where this is legal are indeed violating human rights."
In addition to the Coalition For Marriage petition, signs of concern in society have come from polls in England and Scotland, where similar proposals have been floated.
In a ComRes poll for campaign group Catholic Voices, 70% of respondents agreed that marriage should remain a “lifelong exclusive commitment between a man and a woman”. Only 22% disagreed with the statement, while nine per cent said they were unsure.
In a survey of more than 1,000 Scots by Opinion Research Business (ORB), 69% said they thought that the ideal situation for a child to be raised was by a mother and father.
Fifty-three per cent agreed that gay and lesbian couples “should not be allowed to redefine marriage for everyone else”.
Nearly half of Scots (46%) said they felt “intimidated” into supporting same-sex marriage because of political correctness.
The Scottish Government’s consultation on gay marriage ended in December. It is due to publish its analysis of the responses in spring.
Government consultation on gay marriage gets underway
Published 15 March 2012