UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (pictured) has sought to reassure Church leaders after a draft speech he was due to give described same-sex marriage opponents as “bigots”.
The comment has landed Mr Clegg in trouble after it appeared in prepared remarks which he was due to give at an event this week.
Mr Clegg wrote to senior clerics in both the Church of England and the Catholic Church to disown the remarks.
In a letter to Archbishop Rowan Williams and the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Rt Rev Vincent Nichols, he said that the extracts “were neither written not approved by me”.
He said: “They do not represent my views, which is why they were subsequently withdrawn.
He added: “Nor do I think it is acceptable they, or any one else, are insulted in this way. My views on this issue are no secret, but I respect the fact that some people feel differently to me about marriage, often because of their religious beliefs.”
The speech was circulated in advance to the media, but 90 minutes later his aides tried to cover up the gaffe by issuing a revised version without the ‘bigots’ jibe.
Mr Clegg’s speech originally said: “Continued trouble in the economy gives the bigots a stick to beat us with, as they demand we ‘postpone’ the equalities agenda in order to deal with ‘the things people really care about’.”
But the revised version issued by Mr Clegg’s officials replaced “the bigots” with “some people”.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, said: “There will be many Christians and non-Christians who will be highly offended to be called bigots.
“People who oppose same-sex marriages are doing so on the basis of deeply-held beliefs and we should not be treated in such a way.
“These are important issues that affect society and therefore it is paramount for the Government to give serious attention to those who oppose the rush into gay marriage.”
Meanwhile, the UK's Cabinet Minister for Communities has admitted that churches have “legitimate” concerns about European judges forcing them to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies under government proposals.
Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, said that churches must have clear legal protections to ensure that they cannot be forced by the European Court of Human Rights to marry homosexual couples.
Mr Pickles made the comments in a Daily Telegraph article in which he offers strong support for the role of Christianity in public life, and attacks the “aggressive secularism” he says is found in parts of the public sector.
The Coalition has proposed a change in the law to allow homosexual couples the same marriage rights as heterosexuals.
The proposals have met opposition from many Conservative MPs and leaders of the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church.
Ministers have said that churches and other faith organisations will be allowed to go on refusing to conduct same-sex marriages, meaning homosexual couples will be limited to civil marriages.
The Church of England has said it is concerned that any exemption for churches could be subject to legal challenges.
“There are legitimate fears of European Court of Human Rights challenges and churches being forced down the line to conduct such ceremonies against their wishes,” Mr Pickles said. “These concerns need to be explicitly addressed in any legislative reform to provide safeguards against such coercion.”
Mr Pickles made his attempt to reassure church leaders over the same-sex marriage plan in a broad defence of the role of Christianity. Britain is a Christian nation “and should not be afraid to say so,” Mr Pickles said, insisting that the presence of large non-Christian communities does not diminish that heritage.
“The fact that Britain has welcomed people of many other faiths to live among us over the centuries in no way detracts from this,” he writes. “Indeed, it is the Christian ethos that has made Britain so welcoming.”
Mr Pickles said suggestions that British Christians are being “persecuted” are an exaggeration, but backs those who fear that people of faith are increasingly marginalised. “Long-standing British liberties of freedom of religion have been undermined in recent years by aggressive secularism, especially in the more politically correct parts of the public sector,” he said.