The British government is expected to take a major step toward legalizing gay marriage on Tuesday, but the move will come at a political price for Prime Minister David Cameron.
Members of Parliament are scheduled to vote on a bill allowing gay marriage and the proposed legislation is expected to pass. However, Mr. Cameron's Conservative caucus is bitterly divided over the issue and more than half of the 303 Tory MPs, including at least two cabinet ministers, are expected to vote against the measure or abstain.
Many Tories have voiced fierce opposition to the proposal and bitterly criticized Mr. Cameron for pushing the issue. One group, called "Conservative Grassroots" delivered at letter to Mr. Cameron on Sunday signed by 22 party officials criticizing the gay marriage bill.
"We feel very strongly that the decision to bring this bill before Parliament has been made without adequate debate or consultation with either the membership of the Conservative Party or with the country at large," the letter said.
Mr. Cameron has remained silent on the issue lately but three senior cabinet ministers have shot back at the critics and urged the party to get behind its leader. In an open letter published Tuesday in The Daily Telegraph, the ministers – George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer; Theresa May, Home Secretary; and Foreign Minister William Hague – said the legislation is overdue.
"Marriage has evolved over time. We believe that opening it up to same–sex couples will strengthen, not weaken, the institution," the letter said. "Attitudes towards gay people have changed. A substantial majority of the public now favour allowing same–sex couples to marry, and support has increased rapidly. This is the right thing to do at the right time."
Britain introduced civil partnerships for gay people in 2005 but kept a ban on gay marriage. Since then more than 100,000 people have entered into civil partnerships, far more than the government expected. Mr. Cameron raised the issue of allowing gay marriage a year ago, believing in part that it would help modernize his party and attract new voters. But many Conservatives have argued civil partnerships went far enough and gay marriage is unnecessary.
The government has said that while civil partnerships provide many equivalent rights and responsibilities as marriage, the concepts are legally different. "Civil partnership and marriage are two entirely separate legal regimes with different pieces of legislation covering each of them," the government said in a consultation paper last year endorsing the principle of gay marriage. The gay marriage legislation would only apply to England and Wales but Scotland is considering introducing a similar statute.
Under the proposed Bill, gay marriages would be civil and religious organizations would not be forced to perform them. However, many church leaders are not convinced. The Anglican Church, which opposes gay marriage, told MPs in a recent report that it has "serious doubts about whether the proffered legal protection for churches and faiths from discrimination claims would prove durable. Too much emphasis, we believe, is being placed on the personal assurances of ministers."
In particular, the church is worried that the legislation could be challenged at the European Court of Human Rights.
The Pope has also come out against the proposed legislation arguing that "defending the institution of marriage as a social reality is ultimately a question of justice, since it entails safeguarding the good of the entire human community and the rights of parents and children alike."
Britain is just the latest nation to tackle the tricky issue of gay marriage. France has been facing massive protests for weeks over the government's plan to introduce similar legislation.
For Mr. Cameron gay marriage is just the latest issue to divide his caucus. Many MPs have already been upset over Mr. Cameron's approach to Britain's membership in the European Union and the government's handling of the economy, which is on the verge of its third recession in five years. There have been suggestions his leadership is in question, although no serious rival has yet to emerge.