CANTERBURY, England (RNS/ENInews) The British government on Thursday (March 15) launched a 12-week consultation that is widely expected to lead to the legalization of same-sex marriage in England and Wales, despite strong opposition from Catholics and some Anglicans.
"Should two people who care deeply for each other, who love each other and who want to spend the rest of their lives together be allowed to marry?" Home Secretary Theresa May wrote in The Times of London.
"That is the essential question behind the debate over the government'splans to extend civil marriage to same-sex couples."
The coalition government led by Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy, Nick Clegg, has made it clear that it wants to see a same-sex marriage law before the next general election in 2015. It is also supported by the New Labour opposition leader, Ed Miliband.
The consultation will also include an option of retaining the status quo and that has met with the approval of senior church figures, as well as a number of Conservative lawmakers.
The plan for same-sex weddings only covers civil marriages; religious buildings would only be used where church, temple, mosque or synagogue leaders wished to offer that ceremony.
The reform would also only affect same-sex couples in England and Wales, not Northern Ireland or Scotland. Last year, the Scottish Government held its own consultation process and received more than 50,000 responses.
The decision to launch the consultation was taken despite fierce opposition from Christian leaders. The (Anglican) Church of England said it will study the government's consultation and respond in due course.
"The Church of England is committed to the traditional understanding of the institution of marriage as being between one man and one woman," a statement said Thursday.
On March 11, Catholic priests read a pastoral letter signed by two leading clerics, Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols and Archbishop of Southwark Peter Smith, that warned "changing the legal definition of marriage could be a profoundly radical step. It's consequences should be taken seriously."
Earlier, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the leader of Scotland's estimated 500,000 Roman Catholics, described as "grotesque" plans for same-sex weddings. If passed, the new law would "shame the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world," he said.
Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has cautioned that laws should not be used as a tool to bring about social change, while other religious groups -- Quakers, Reform Jews and Unitarians -- have welcomed it.
Civil partnerships were introduced in the United Kingdom in 2005, giving same-sex couples the same legal rights as married couples.