LONDON (AP) - The Church of England formally objected Tuesday to the government's proposal to permit gay marriages, asserting that the church's historic understanding is that marriage is a 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. The government's proposal would also allow heterosexual couples to form civil partnerships, which were introduced for gay couples in 2005.
The issue has caused friction between Cameron, who is allowing party members to vote their conscience on the legislation, and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg who expects all members of his Liberal Democrat party to support the change.
The church's paper was released on the day when the traditional marriage group Coalition for Marriage plans to bring to Cameron's office a petition with more than half a million signatures opposing the change.
In a paper drafted by English bishops and the Archbishops' Council, the church 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."
About a fourth of weddings in England take place in Church of England churches, which are legally obligated to provide a marriage service for any resident of a local parish who wishes it, regardless of church membership.