The Law Society will today enter the escalating political row over same-sex marriage by declaring its support for legalisation – while defending the ‘religious freedom’ of churches and other faith groups that refuse to perform ceremonies.

The Society’s response to a Government Equalities Office consultation, which closed today, comes in the week the Church of England (CofE) condemned same-sex marriages, saying they could lead to a clash between canon law and statute law.

The Society also says it is in favour of allowing opposite-sex couples to enter into civil partnerships, which are currently restricted to same-sex couples.

The Society’s response says that the current situation of permitting marriage between heterosexual couples only ‘constitutes discrimination based on sexual orientation’. Such an important ‘societal institution’ as marriage should be equally accessible to all, it says. Therefore, ‘based purely on its commitment to equality before the law’, it agrees with government proposals to allow all couples to have a civil marriage ceremony.

However, the Society disagrees with the government’s proposal to keep ‘religious marriage’ (as opposed to ‘civil marriage’) closed to same-sex couples. It says that the right of religious groups not to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies on their premises should be protected because ‘doing otherwise would infringe on religious freedom’. However, stopping religious groups that do wish to carry out such ceremonies ‘would also infringe on religious freedom without legitimate justification’.

The Society also disagrees with government proposals to keep civil partnerships closed to opposite-sex couples on the grounds of discrimination against heterosexual couples. ‘The issue is once again of equal access and non-discrimination,’ the Society adds.

In its own response, the CofE said that the government’s proposals ‘have not been thought through properly and are not legally sound’. It said that ministerial assurances on religious freedom would be ‘of limited value, given that once the law was changed the key decisions would be for the domestic and European courts’.

Law Society vice-president Lucy Scott-Moncrieff said in a BBC interview that, if the issue was taken to the European court, judges were unlikely to agree that any religious organisation would be forced to carry out same-sex marriages. ‘But what it might say is that religious organisations should be allowed to if they want to,’ she added.