Britain's parliament has voted across party lines to legalize gay marriages. But, the free vote split the Conservative party of Prime Minister David Cameron amid speculation that he could face a leadership challenge.
Britain's House of Commons passed the gay marriage bill by 400 votes to 175 votes on Tuesday. Cameron had championed the legislation, despite strong objections within his Conservative party. He said the bill would make British society "stronger."
The junior Liberal Democrat party in Cameron's coalition had backed the bill during debate on Tuesday, as did the opposition Labour.
Early estimates put the number of Tories who voted against their leader at between 140 and 150, or around half the Conservative lawmakers in the House.
The split within Conservative ranks exposed doubts about Cameron's authority and his bid to modernize his party. In January, he had tried to placate party euro-skeptics by promising a delayed in-out referendum on whether Britain should remain within the EU.
The legislation passed Tuesday would allow gay couples to convert current "civil partnerships" into marriages and would legalize same-sex marriages from 2014 at civil and religious ceremonies – before Britain's next general election due in 2015.
The bill must still go before the upper chamber, the House of Lords, before becoming law.
Backbenchers ignore pleas
Many backbench conservatives voted against the bill, ignoring pleas to fall into line from senior Conservatives such as Home Secretary Theresa May and Foreign Secretary William Hague.
Cameron, himself, said he was a "strong believer in marriage. It helps people commit to each other and I think it is right that gay people should be able to get married too."
"But it is also about making our society stronger," Cameron added during a televised statement just two hours before the vote.
Culture Secretary Maria Miller, who steered the bill through parliament, had claimed there had been "clear support" among Conservatives and other parties for the law change.
Surveys point to little electoral gain
While a majority of Britons and Cameron back gay marriage, surveys show that objections among conservatives would cost his party more votes than it is likely to gain on the issue at the next general election due in 2015.
Backbench conservative Brian Binley denounced the bill, saying it would "further undermine marriage in the eyes of many" and would result in "grievous injury to social cohesion."
Another Conservative parliamentarian Stewart Jackson said: "People in the parliamentary party are wondering why [Cameron] has got us into this position."
Also among the objectors were the Anglican and Catholic churches and the new Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.
ipj/kms (AFP, Reuters, dpa, AP)