The former prime minister throws his support behind same-sex marriage in religious settings, joining high-profile Tories Boris Johnson and Michael Gove who also back the move.

Former prime minister John Major throws support behind David Cameron's plan to allow same-sex marriage in religious settings such as churches, joining high-profile Tories Boris Johnson and Gove

Former prime minister John Major throws support behind David Cameron's plan to allow same-sex marriage in religious settings such as churches, joining high-profile Tories Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.

"The prime minister's instinct to support equal marriage is a courageous and genuine attempt to offer security and comfort to people who - at present - may be together, yet feel apart," Sir John said.

The issue has split Conservatives who support Mr Cameron's view and those 100 or so Tories opposed to allowing same-sex couples to legalise their union in a place of worship. Last week Mr Cameron said he expected the party to hold a free vote for MPs in 2013.

"As it is a free vote, undoubtedly cabinet ministers who have expressed concerns about the redefinition of marriage will vote according to their conscience," Conservative MP Peter Bone told Channel 4 News. Mr Bone estimated that the party was split in half over the issue.

Churches free to decide

Wading into the debate today Mr Major said he understood there would be many MPs as well as religious groups to accept.

"But the prime minister has made it clear that the churches will be free to make their own decisions upon whether to conduct such marriages - and that is entirely the right approach," Mr Major said.

"We live in the 21st century and must move on: every couple should have the opportunity and the right to formalise their relationship."

Under the proposals, due to be detailed this week, churches and other venues will be allowed to "opt in" to holding civil marriage ceremonies.

Ministers will offer a guarantee that no institution will be forced to marry gay people on their premises - but some Tory MPs and religious groups have questioned whether it would stand up to challenges under the Human Rights Act

Legal implications

Mr Bone argued they may be legal implications, however, that would make it more difficult to ring-fence those religious institutions that did not want to conduct services for same-sex marriages.

"I think that situation would be struck down by the ECHR. No political party has any mandate for such a change," Mr Bone said.

Legislation is expected to be introduced early next year and could mean the first gay wedding ceremonies would be held in the spring of 2014.

A new Conservative group announced on Sunday includes London Mayor Boris Johnson and Education Secretary Michael Gove. It was put together by Nick Herbert, the former police minister who resigned from government in September's reshuffle.

The group also includes Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin, who is Catholic, Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt, an evangelical Christian, former Tory Ministers Lord Fowler and Nicholas Soames and Scottish Conservatives leader Ruth Davidson.

'Most parents don't want their children to be gay'

Tory backbencher David TC Davies has expressed his concerns over gay marriage and suggested most parents did not want their children to be gay.

"If there are any sort of areas where there isn't full equality with married couples then I'd be more than happy to support making changes to civic ceremonies, so I really don't know why we need to go ahead with this at all," the Monmouth MP told BBC Radio Wales.

"I think most people are very tolerant and have no problem at all if people are gay but, and I hate to say this in a way because I expect it's going to cause controversy, but I think most parents would prefer their children not to be gay, knowing most parents want grandchildren if nothing else."

Mr Davies said he was not sure the government could guarantee churches would not be forced to hold gay marriage ceremonies given the power of European courts.

"What I'm concerned about is what we were originally given a consultation on, and that is having gay marriage recognised by law which opens to door to all churches being forced to do that," Mr Davies said.

"It changes the way that sex education is going to be taught in schools.

"It's going to have an impact on teachers and I think it goes against what a lot of people feel very strongly about, particularly within the Conservative Party."