The government has launched a public consultation over plans to allow same sex couples to marry, while insisting it is not a question of whether the law is changed, but when.

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Same sex couples in England and Wales will be allowed to get married in register offices and stately homes under new plans put forward by the Government, although only men and women will be able to marry in church. The Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone said marriage was "a celebration of love, and should be open to everyone", and declared there would be "no rolling back whatsoever".

The Home Office has published its consultation paper online, inviting members of the public to submit comments over the next three months, when MPs will get a free vote on whether to make the changes law. As well as allowing same sex couples to marry, the changes would also let couples in a civil partnership convert it to a civil marriage. Couples can also stay married if one partner legally changes gender. The rules for church marriages won't change.

Church opposition

The Church of England has vehemently opposed the proposals, claiming they "misunderstand the legal nature of marriage in this country. They mistake the form of the ceremony for the institution itself." On Sunday, the most senior Catholic cleric in England, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, sent a letter to be read out during mass in churches across the country warning that the changes would not recognise "that marriage is intended for the procreation and education of children".

Marriage is a celebration of love, and should be open to everyone. Lynne Featherstone MP, Equalities minister

The lobby group Coalition For Marriage has managed to gather 200,000 signatures for their online petition against same sex marriage. Their director, Colin Hart, called the consultation a sham, saying his supporters "believe that this change is profoundly undemocratic, will have massive consequences for society, and is simply unneccessary."

Changing tradition

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has been championing the cause of marriage equality despite the opposition of a number of Tory MPs, and a party which has long supported the idea of traditional marriage. One Conservative MP, Peter Bone, told LBC radio he "threw up" when he heard Mr Cameron saying he supported gay marriage because he was a Conservative. "On this particular issue", he said, "he is totally and utterly wrong".

They mistake the form of the ceremony for the institution itself. Church of England

But supporters of the proposals have welcomed the reforms. Ben Summerskill, from Stonewall, said the issue was fundamentally "about the freedom of a small group of people to be treated in exactly the same way as everyone else", while Labour's Yvette Cooper called for even further change. "Churches who want to celebrate gay marriage (should have) the chance to do so", she said.

And there's one company which has already made its support for a change in the law very public. The ice cream firm Ben and Jerry's has changed the name of one of it's UK flavours to 'Appley ever after', adorning packs with an image of a gay couple atop a wedding cake. And whatever the objections, Lynne Featherstone has made it clear that the Government won't change its mind on this issue. Legislation to lift the ban on same sex marriage will be introduced before the next election, in 2015.