Duncan Hamilton: Gay marriage is no impediment to Scottish independence

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SEX, politics and religion – three of the most divisive subjects known to man. Yes, OK, or woman. See the problem?

The vast majority of Scots will therefore be confused about how and why the nation finds itself engaged in an increasingly bitter stramash over gay marriage. So let’s start with two important facts.

First, this is a consultation. Yes, a series of questions asked by the Government of you. The idea is to test the water; to run an idea up the flagpole and see who salutes it. No more, no less.

Secondly, this is about enhancing and respecting freedoms and rights, not removing them. Today, if two gay church members approach a minister and ask for a religious ceremony, the answer is “no”. If the law changes, the same gay couple will go to the same minister, and he can still say “no”. The difference is that currently the law requires the minister to refuse. If we legislate, the minister has a choice. So, let’s get this straight (pardon the pun) – no one will be forced, by anyone, to do anything.

That means the Catholic Church has a veto over Catholic ceremonies. The Muslim community can simply refuse. The Church of Scotland, through the General Assembly, can opt out. It could never be any other way – for just as gay couples have human rights to freedom of religious expression, so do ministers and priests. If they choose not to celebrate gay marriage, that’s how it will be. From a church perspective, “no” really does mean no.

That matters because thereafter the argument becomes purely about the impact on wider society. I entirely defend the right of the churches to express their view on that – society would be much worse off if they didn’t. But in return, I assume the churches understand the limitations of that voice in modern public policy. It is entirely and rightly within their right to control what happens in matters of their own church governance. It is equally entirely appropriate that the wider societal view be reflected outside that remit. If gay partnerships are already recognised by the state, I struggle to see why gay marriage in the same registry office is so different. Sixty-nine per cent of Scots appear to agree. I suspect many church members do too.

Does it really diminish the whole concept of marriage? Certainly it diminishes the traditional concept of Christian marriage, which is why I defend the right of the churches to resist change if that is their view. By contrast, if a civil marriage – by definition one which does not seek to embrace a religious perspective – is proposed, I am struggling to see the corrosive and damaging impact. Most Scots will defend with their last breath the right of Christians, Muslims and anyone else to define their own “right” approach to marriage. What we can’t accept in 2011 is the assertion of that view on all parts of secular society. That ship sailed many years ago.

What are we really fighting over anyway? Some 465 gay couples registered a civil partnership in Scotland last year. Let’s assume the gay community is no more likely to be religious than any other part of the community, and that perhaps 30 per cent seek a religious ceremony. Are we seriously prepared to devote this level of coverage and attention in the midst of global meltdown to whether 140 gay couples in Scotland have the right to seek a church wedding, in circumstances where we now know the church is likely to say “no”?

Which begs the question – why is this even an issue? Why are we consulting on it, let alone falling out about it? On that, the Scottish Government has slightly lost me. I am willing to bet that most gay couples are more concerned about paying the mortgage and keeping their jobs than they are about lobbying Parliament on this issue. If you want to understand just how little is at stake here, please read Annex B of the Scottish Government Consultation. It is entitled Differences Between Civil Partnerships And Marriage. Leaving aside the religious aspect, the legal differences are now almost negligible.

So please, can we get this in perspective? Should gay couples have the right to ask for a religious wedding? Yes. Should the church have the right to refuse? Yes. And to think the question of consent used to be one just for the bride and groom.

To those determined to build this discussion into something it isn’t, the message must be one of restraint. I noted Gordon Wilson, the former leader of the SNP, warning that the issue could lead to defeat in the independence referendum. That is wrong on two levels. First, because this issue has nothing to do with Scottish independence. Wendy Alexander’s debate over Clause 28 was much more divisive and was handled much less sensitively. That happened within a devolved Scotland. Did Scots then turn their back on the concept of constitutional reform? Hardly – since then an SNP Government has been elected twice and we stand on the threshold of independence.

Secondly, it ignores the point of independence. It isn’t just to sneak a victory through in the interests of the SNP. It is about challenging Scotland to make some choices about the kind of society that we want to be. It’s precisely about being that tolerant, reasonable place where rights are respected and promoted. Mainstream Scotland understands that we are a rights-based society. At its heart, that plurality means being prepared to respect difference, regardless of whether or not we approve.