By Tom Heneghan and Alexandria Sage
PARIS (Reuters) - Plans by France's Socialist government to legalize same-sex marriage are proving harder to enact than first thought after faith leaders and conservatives mobilized against it even as left-wing deputies try to expand it.
With a solid majority it won last spring, the government originally only planned short parliamentary hearings and a debate early next year before voting on one of President Francois Hollande's most divisive campaign promises and something he has framed as a trademark reform.
But as opposition has grown, it has put off issuing the draft text of the reform and scheduled longer parliamentary hearings. It has also put aside one demand, assisted procreation - or giving gay couples the right to have "test tube babies" - as too hot to handle for now.
"Parliament will take its time," Interior Minister Manuel Valls said on Saturday. "Nobody doubts (the reform) will become law, but all opinions - political, philosophical or religious - will be heard."
Inter-LGBT, a group pressing for full equality on all issues of sexual orientation, has accused Hollande of backtracking on his campaign promises. "The symbolism is strong but they're stopping halfway," said spokesman Nicolas Gougain.
"We thought we would get everything from a left-wing government," said a disappointed civil servant at a debate on gay parenting in the western city of Nantes. "There are still many fights to be fought."
SECULAR ARGUMENTS FROM FAITH LEADERS
Passing the law by mid-2013 as planned would make France the 12th country around the world to legalize same-sex marriage.
Surveys by the Ifop polling group show support for gay marriage has slipped a bit from 65 percent in August to 61 percent now as the public debate has taken off.
Public support for full adoption rights for gay couples, the second part of the planned reform, has also slid from 53 per cent then to 48 percent now.
Sandra Adjedj, 36, a dress designer displaying her wares at a wedding salon in Paris, echoed the ambivalence about adoption rights. "I'm neither for nor against, but why not?" she said. "Most gay couples seem sweet, they like their children."
Leaders of the main religions have led the anti-reform drive using arguments based on the psychological and social damage they say it could cause rather than on religious doctrines.
The majority Roman Catholic Church organized nationwide prayers against gay marriage reform on August 15 and Paris cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois has discussed the issue in private talks with Hollande and Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.
The Church has also distributed talking points to help Catholics around the country debate supporters of the reform.
Like the position papers by leaders of other faiths, the memo stresses respect for homosexuals but rejects their effort to redefine the traditional institution of marriage.
Over 78,000 people have signed a petition sponsored by 41 conservative politicians and intellectuals as well as Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox Christian, evangelical and Muslim leaders.
Conservative mayors have called for a "conscience clause" to avoid presiding at same-sex marriages, which Paris has refused.
In an analysis published last week, Grand Rabbi Gilles Bernheim accused reform supporters of focusing on love and equality to win changes that he said could confuse children's sexual identities and undermine social stability.
Even the state's child benefits agency has criticized the plan to scrap the entries for "father" and "mother" in official records in favor of "parent 1" and "parent 2".
Yet the government is facing loud demands from within its own ranks to go even further and allow newer methods of procreation so that gay couples can have a biological link to their children.
Senior Socialists including National Assembly speaker Claude Bartelone, parliamentary leader Bruno Le Roux and Harlem Desir, the party's new first secretary, want to amend the draft bill to include a clause granting gay couples the right to assisted procreation so they can make "test tube babies."
Senator Esther Benbassa, from the allied Greens party, said she would push for legal recognition of children born to surrogate mothers outside France, where the practice is illegal.
"The government has offered only the minimum," said Socialist Senator Jean-Pierre Michel. "Separating the question of marriage from that of parenthood makes no sense."
(Additional reporting by Patrick Vignal and Julien Ponthus; Editing by Andrew Osborn)