The Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has written to the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales to distance himself from the claim that he considered the opponents of same-sex marriage to be “bigots”.
He has told Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, and also Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, that the phrase was neither written nor approved by him.
The Liberal Democrat leader had earlier faced severe criticism for the opinions contained in the speech, circulated to the media, which pointedly referred to supporters of traditional marriage as “bigots”.
The speech was to be given at a government party for gay rights campaigners and celebrities to mark the end of the public consultation on the redefinition of marriage, but was withdrawn and amended amid the immediate furore.
Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, described Mr Clegg’s remarks as “very offensive”.
But in a letter to Christian leaders, Mr Clegg said: “Those extracts were neither written or approved by me.
“They do not represent my views, which is why they were subsequently withdrawn. While I am a committed advocate of equal marriage I would never refer to people who oppose it in this way.”
He said: “Indeed, I know people myself who do not support equal marriage and, although I disagree with them, clearly I do not think they are bigots. Nor do I think it is acceptable they, or anyone else, are insulted in this way.”
He added: “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.
“I hope this explanation helps clarify what happened yesterday as well as my position, and I hope that the serious error that occurred will not cause lasting offence.”
An unnamed aide has been blamed for drafting and releasing the speech on Tuesday afternoon.
The original words complained that “continued trouble in the economy gives the bigots a stick to beat us with as they demand we ‘postpone’ the equalities agenda”.
Following instant controversy a new version was issued with the word “bigots” replaced by “some people”.
The manoeuvres of Mr Clegg have done little, however, to allay widespread concerns that the speech was in fact an accurate representation of the attitude of the Coalition Government to Christians.
Colin Hart of the Coalition for Marriage has questioned why public money was spent on a party to mark the consultation but only one side invited, particularly when more than half-a-million signatures opposing the law have been gathered.
The commitment to the cause of gay marriage by Mr Clegg and the Prime Minister, David Cameron, has also been questioned by Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities, who said that Church fears over legal attacks were “legitimate”.
The Catholic bishops have warned the Government that the promise of safeguards allowing them to refuse gay weddings were worthless in the light of European equality law.
Mr Pickles, writing in the Daily Telegraph newspaper, apparently agreed with their analysis of the proposed legislation.
“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,” he wrote.
“These concerns need to be explicitly addressed in any legislative reform to provide safeguards against such coercion.”