Over three quarters of British people believe that introducing new laws permitting same-sex marriage should not be a priority of the Government, according to a new poll.
In an ICM survey for The Sunday Telegraph, voters said that such legislation should not be fast tracked while other issues such as the economy and public-service reform are competing for parliamentary time.
The poll also showed that the public are split on the merits of the proposal itself.
According to the survey, 45 per cent support the move in principle, while 36 per cent oppose it, and the rest saying they do not know. Women are more strongly in favour than men.
It comes as ministers this week begin a major public consultation on the issue, with the stated aim of having new laws in place by the time of the next general election, which is set for May 2015.
Opinion is more sceptical among Conservative voters. Exactly half of Tory voters, 50 per cent, oppose same-sex marriage in principle with only 35 per cent backing it – and 88 per cent of Tories say it is wrong to prioritise the issue before 2015.
The poll results show that David Cameron faces an uphill battle to persuade his own party of the merits of the policy.
The results follow an article in The Sunday Telegraph by Britain's most senior Catholic, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, in which he accused ministers of putting forward plans which were a "grotesque subversion of a universally acknowledged human right".
The Cardinal also demanded to know what would happen to school teachers who wanted to continue to tell pupils that marriage was between a man and a woman. Some 33 per cent of voters in the ICM poll thought that schools should teach that same-sex marriage was the same as heterosexual unions, while 49 per cent thought they should not.
More than half of all voters thought Churches should have the right not to hold same-sex marriage ceremonies, an opt-out that ministers have consistently promised will be included in new legislation., while 26 per cent said Churches should not have such an opt-out.
The 12-week consultation period is expected to be launched this week by Lynne Featherstone, the Liberal Democrat equalities minister.
While legislation is not expected to be included in the Queen's Speech in May, which sets out the parliamentary programme for the following 12 months, ministers are expected to confirm that the law will be changed before polling day in 2015.
While Mr Cameron is likely to face a sizeable Tory rebellion in the Commons, the measure is certain to pass after Labour officially confirmed last week it supports gay marriage plans.
Ministers are understood to have dropped, however, parallel plans to allow heterosexual couples who do not wish to marry to form civil partnerships.
Mr Cameron has personally associated himself with the drive for reform, with many Tories believing a large part of the reason he is doing so is a desire to prove his party has changed and is no longer the "nasty party".
ICM Research interviewed an online sample of 2,001 adults between March 7 and March 9. Interviews were conducted across the country and results have been weighted to the profile of all adults.