The House of Commons voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to approve a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in Britain, indicating that the bill is assured of passage as it moves through further legislative stages.
But in a major setback for Prime Minister David Cameron, who championed the measure, it appeared that more than half of the lawmakers in his Conservative Party voted against it or abstained.
After a six-hour debate, the Commons vote was 400 to 175 for the bill. The legislation, which applies to England and Wales, would permit civil marriage between same-sex couples, but specifically exempt the Church of England and other faiths from an obligation to perform such ceremonies. Some faith groups, including the Quakers, have said they want the legal right to perform same-sex marriages.
The bill still has to pass in the House of Lords, where delaying tactics by opponents are possible, but Mr. Cameron has said he plans to have it enacted into law sometime this summer.
Although 127 of the 303 Conservative lawmakers voted for the bill, 136 voted against, with 5 abstentions and 35 who registered no vote at all. Those voting against included two cabinet ministers, eight junior ministers and eight whips. The opening to the revolt came when party leaders decided to make the issue a so-called free vote, allowing lawmakers to break with their party without fear of disciplinary action.
The bulk of the votes approving the measure came from the opposition Labour Party and the center-left Liberal Democrats, who are allied in an uneasy governing coalition with the Conservatives. While Labour suffered defections of its own, its parliamentary bloc voted overwhelmingly for the measure.
In modern times, however, few prime ministers have faced such an extensive rebellion in their own ranks, and the outcome seemed likely to add to the growing ferment among backbench Conservatives about Mr. Cameron's leadership on a wide range of issues, including Britain's shrinking defense budget and its increasingly uneasy ties with the European Union.
The divisions over same-sex marriage have been less vehement in Britain than in France, where a similar bill backed by President François Hollande has prompted demonstrations in Paris recently that have drawn tens of thousands into the streets. Discussions in the French Parliament have been equally impassioned, where a marathon debate on the issue, now in its second week, has featured angry insults across the floor of the National Assembly and more than 5,300 amendments.
By comparison, the debate in the House of Commons was mostly understated, with a strong undercurrent of realism among lawmakers who oppose gay marriage but sensed that the battle was already lost, not only in the crushing parliamentary majority favoring change but in a wide variety of opinion polls that have shown strong public support.
Nonetheless, some Conservative lawmakers added a strident note to Tuesday's debate.
"It is not possible to redefine marriage," said Sir Roger Gale, a right-wing backbencher. "Marriage is the union between a man and a woman, has been historically, remains so. It is Alice in Wonderland territory, Orwellian almost, for any government of any political persuasion to seek to come along and try to rewrite the lexicon. It will not do."
Source: The New York Times | JOHN F. BURNS and ALAN COWELL