LONDON -- Marriage-minded gays and lesbians can begin tying the knot in Britain on Saturday, becoming the latest same-sex couples in Europe and beyond to have the right to do so and fulfilling a dream made possible by a Conservative-led government.
A handful of town halls across the country prepared to open at the stroke of midnight to allow nuptials that jubilant supporters called long overdue and opponents deplored as an attack on traditional values.
"It's a landmark," said Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who arranged for rainbow flags to fly over two government offices in London on Friday in celebration. "It's just a simple idea: that if two people love each other ... and they want to show that commitment towards each other through marriage, they should be able to do so."
Clegg's Liberal Democrats campaigned for the change along with their senior partner in Britain's ruling coalition, the Conservatives. The opposition Labor Party also backed the bill that was introduced by the government in Parliament last year and then passed handily despite objections from some religious organizations.
The expansion of marriage was mostly a symbolic victory for gay-rights advocates rather than a practical one. Since 2005, same-sex couples have been able to enter civil partnerships -- an innovation by the then-Labor government that conferred virtually all the same rights and legal benefits as marriage.
Campaigners decided to press for equality in nomenclature when the current government, which came to power in 2010, signaled its openness to the idea. Prime Minister David Cameron was eager to shed the Conservatives' image as the "nasty party" and to compensate for an earlier Tory government's passage of legislation barring the "promotion" of homosexuality in schools.
"I don't support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I'm a Conservative," Cameron said at a party conference in 2011, delighting gay activists.
"It was surprising how quickly a political consensus emerged on it," said Richard Lane, a spokesman for the Stonewall gay-rights organization. "Our relationships are no different, so why shouldn't they be recognized in the same way?"
To satisfy bishops who tried to block the bill, the new law allowing same-sex marriage specifically forbids the Church of England from performing those rites. Other denominations and faiths, such as Quakers and some Jewish groups, can host same-sex weddings if they choose.
Britain is now one of about a dozen European nations, including France and Spain, that permit same-sex couples to get hitched. Italy, which hosts the Vatican in its backyard, remains the only major European country not to offer gays and lesbians some form of civil union or domestic partnership.
Not all groups in Britain endorsed the change. Fiona O'Reilly of Catholic Voices described same-sex marriage as "bad for society."
"When you say sexual difference doesn't matter, marriage isn't about a man and a woman, you see concepts such as husband and wife, father and mother, just start to disappear from legislation," O'Reilly told the BBC. "Now that, in essence, makes it harder for people to get married and stay married as a heterosexual couple. But frankly, it also weakens society as a whole."
The leader of the fast-rising United Kingdom Independence Party, Nigel Farage, also opposes marriage equality. A party member recently attracted attention, and ridicule, for suggesting that the heavy rains and flooding across Britain this past winter were divine retribution for Parliament's approval of same-sex marriage.
In a survey released Friday by a British radio network, 20% of respondents said they would refuse to attend the wedding of a gay couple.
"That also shows that 80% of people are looking forward to celebrating same-sex weddings with their friends and families," said Stonewall's Lane.
So far, no registrars in Britain have declared themselves unwilling to perform such ceremonies, as has happened with some county clerks in the United States. In any case, they would not be given the option to recuse themselves under the law.