- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 12, 2012

LONDON — The Church of England and Roman Catholic bishops of England and Wales formally objected Tuesday to the government’s proposal to permit gay marriages, both asserting that their historic understanding is that marriage is the union of a woman and a man.

Prime Minister David Cameron is backing a proposal to permit civil marriages for gay couples, despite the strong opposition of some lawmakers in his Conservative Party.

Gay couples already are allowed to have civil partnerships, with the first such ceremony in 2005.

The churches’ responses were released on the day when the traditional marriage group Coalition for Marriage delivered a petition with more than half a million signatures to Mr. Cameron’s office, opposing the change.

Thursday is the deadline for public comment, which the government will consider in drafting legislation.

“The uniqueness of the institution of marriage is based on the fact that the human person exists as both male and female and that their union for the purpose of procreation, mutual support and love has, over the centuries of human history, formed a stable unit which we call the family,” the Catholic bishops argued.

Home Secretary Theresa May said the government didn’t want to impose anything on any religious organization.

“We won’t be asking anybody to do anything that goes against their conscience,” said Ms. May, whose department is leading the consultation.

With attendance continuing to fall, the Church of England has seen its influence wane.

Perhaps mindful of that, much of the Church of England’s criticism of gay marriage focused on legal issues rather than quoting Scripture.

The response from the church’s bishops and the Archbishops’ Council argued that gay couples already have many of the legal benefits of marriage through civil partnerships and worried that churches could ultimately be required to perform same-sex marriages.

“To change the nature of marriage for everyone will be divisive and deliver no obvious legal gain given the rights already conferred by civil partnerships,” the church said. “We believe that imposing for essentially ideological reasons a new meaning on a term as familiar and fundamental as marriage would be deeply unwise.”

Gay marriage backers pointed out that the legislation would only focus on civil marriages and would exempt religious groups from any duty to perform same-sex marriages.

Peter Tatchell, a leader of the Equal Love campaign for gay marriage, accused the church of “scaremongering, exaggerating the effects of same-sex marriage and advocating legal discrimination.”

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