Churches and other religious premises should be allowed to host gay weddings, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has said.

The Lib Dem leader stressed that while he did not want to force any religious group to marry same-sex couples, he saw no reason to stop churches from doing so if they chose to.

His comments go beyond the proposals to legalise civil marriages for homosexual men and lesbians, set out in a government consultation paper which has sparked a furious reaction from some religious groups.

The proposals, backed by prime minister David Cameron, envisage same-sex civil marriage ceremonies in a register office or approved premises but no change to religious marriages, which can only take place between a man and a woman.

Under the proposed reforms, religious premises would continue to be allowed to host civil partnership registrations on a voluntary basis, but without any religious content.

Mr Clegg told the Evening Standard: "This is a personal view at the moment, but I think that in exactly the same way that we shouldn't force any church to conduct gay marriage, we shouldn't stop any church that wants to conduct gay marriage.

nick clegg

The deputy prime minister lent his support to gay couples wishing to marry in churches

"I don't see why two individuals who love each other and want to show commitment to each other should not be able to do so in a way that is socially recognised as being marriage."

The Church of England wrote to home secretary Theresa May last month to warn that the legalisation of civil marriage for same-sex couples would "alter the intrinsic nature of marriage as the union of a man and a woman" and would result in legal challenges to force religious organisations to host gay weddings.

The Bishop of Leicester, the Right Reverend Tim Stevens, warned that gay weddings would "hollow out" the meaning of heterosexual marriage and could lead to the "gradual unravelling of the Church of England".

But Mr Clegg said: "I have a very strong sensation that once the dust settles everyone will look back and think, 'What on earth was the controversy about? It just seems a perfectly natural thing to do'.

"I don't think it is anything to get hot under the collar about, or aggressive or polemical."