LONDON -- British Prime Minister David Cameron saluted the first gay and lesbian marriages today after a change in the law came into force at midnight.
Same-sex civil marriage gives a "powerful" message that all are equal and should help to give confidence to young people, the prime minister wrote in an article for PinkNews, which describes itself as Europe's largest gay news service.
"The introduction of same-sex civil marriage says something about the sort of country we are; it says we are a country that will continue to honor its proud traditions of respect, tolerance and equal worth," Mr. Cameron wrote. "When people's love is divided by law, it is the law that needs to change."
Mr. Cameron pushed through the change in the face of opposition from lawmakers in his own Conservative Party and at risk of alienating core Tory voters. Same-sex couples are now permitted to marry in civil ceremonies and places of worship which opt in, while there are protections in the legislation for religious groups, including Roman Catholics, that object.
The change is largely being taken in stride, with little rancor from opponents and a sense from supporters that same-sex marriage was long overdue. Britain had already allowed gay couples to adopt children, and gay service members are permitted to serve openly in the military.
Unlike in the United States and other countries that have been roiled by debates over gay rights, marriage equality has overwhelming support, and was passed by a comfortable majority in parliament in July. Leaders of all three main parties backed the bill.
The lack of outspoken opposition reflects how quickly attitudes have changed in a country where, just a generation ago, same-sex couples were described by law as "a pretended family relationship," and schools were banned from doing anything that might promote homosexuality.
"It's definitely a landmark moment," said Richard Lane, spokesman for the gay rights advocacy group Stonewall. Same-sex relationships, he said, will now be recognized as "just as loving, united and, frankly, mundane, as everyone else's relationships."
Despite the change today, the United Kingdom, like the United States, remains a patchwork when it comes to gay marriage laws. While it will now be legal in England and Wales, it remains prohibited in the union's other two component parts: Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The devolved Scottish assembly recently passed legislation that will change that, with same-sex weddings likely by the end of the year. Gay marriage is considered a political non-starter in Northern Ireland.
The new law is opposed by the Church of England, whose bishops wrote a letter last month reminding clergy that "Christian understanding and doctrine of marriage as a lifelong union between one man and one woman remains unchanged."
But Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who heads the Church of England, appeared to soften the church's tone this week, suggesting to the Guardian newspaper that clergy would not resist the change. "I think the church has reacted by fully accepting that it's the law, and should react on Saturday by continuing to demonstrate in word and action, the love of Christ for every human being," he said.
The comments echo those of Pope Francis, who has remained adamantly opposed to same-sex marriage but who famously asked in July: "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"
The Washington Post contributed.