Britain Introduces Same-Sex Marriage Bill

By Jill Lawless

LONDON (AP) -

The British government published a bill to legalize same-sex marriage Friday, and said lawmakers will get their first vote on it in Parliament next month.

The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill extends marriage to gay couples but excludes clergy in the Church of England - the country's official faith - from having to carry out the ceremonies.

That is intended to placate religious opponents of same-sex unions - though it has not stopped criticism of the bill from religious leaders.

"We feel that marriage is a good thing and we should be supporting more couples to marry and that is exactly what the proposals being brought forward today do," Equalities Minister Maria Miller told BBC radio.

But she said the bill offered "protections ... for churches who feel that this isn't appropriate for their particular beliefs."

The bill is likely to become law because it is supported by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, many members of his Cabinet and most Liberal Democrat and Labour lawmakers.

But some traditionalist Conservative lawmakers say they will vote against it. The first debate and vote are scheduled for Feb 5.

Church of England clergy - and those in the equivalent Church in Wales - have a legal duty to marry parishioners that does not apply to other religions.

Miller said that "to protect them from legal challenge ... the bill makes clear that this duty does not extend to same-sex couples."

The bill allows for other religious groups who wish to conduct same-sex ceremonies - such as Quakers and liberal Jews - to do so if their governing bodies approve.

Since 2005, gay couples in Britain have been able to form civil partnerships, which give them the same legal protection, adoption and inheritance rights as heterosexual married partners - but not the label of marriage.

Polls suggest a majority of Britons support extending marriage to same-sex couples, but the issue remains divisive.

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