THE SCOTTISH Government yesterday published draft legislation that could see gay marriage introduced in Scotland in 2014.
But Church leaders fear the new laws do not include enough “protections” for religious bodies and individuals and are calling for “more safeguards”.
The Church of Scotland and Roman Catholic Church, like other religions, will have to “opt in” if they want to carry out same-sex ceremonies under the SNP plans. Scottish ministers insist no part of the religious community would be forced to hold same-sex weddings in churches.
Talks are also being held with UK ministers to amend equality laws, to protect celebrants from legal or disciplinary action if they refuse to take part or speak out against same-sex ceremonies.
But leading human rights QC Aidan O’Neill has previously warned that the “full panoply” of non-discrimination law could apply after the change, to prevent any discrimination against same-sex or opposite-sex couples.
The Westminster government recently announced plans for gay marriages in England and Wales, but the Church of England and Church of Wales will be banned in law from offering same-sex marriages.
The Scottish proposals have received cross-party support in Holyrood. But a consultation on the principle of the change earlier this year polarised opinion in Scotland, with gay rights groups pitched against religious campaigners. It produced a majority against same-sex marriage.
Health secretary Alex Neil said yesterday: “We are introducing same-sex marriage in Scotland because it is the right thing to do. We are striving to create a Scotland that is free, tolerant and fair and I am pleased to say there is support across the chamber for this significant step.
“I am absolutely clear that this should not impact on religious freedom and no religious body will be compelled to solemnise same-sex marriages.”
Where a body does decide to carry out same-sex marriages, its individual celebrants, like ministers and priests, who do not want to carry them out will be protected. Concerns have previously been expressed that once same sex-marriage is enshrined in statute, proponents could pursue legal action that may ultimately force religious bodies into participating.
But Archbishop Philip Tartaglia, president of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, said leading legal opinion has warned the government’s proposals will have an adverse impact on “religious freedom and a wide range of civil liberties”.
The cleric added: “In order not to discriminate unjustly, more safeguards need to be embedded in the proposed legislation.”
Rev Alan Hamilton, convener of the Church of Scotland’s legal questions committee, said: “We have also expressed concerns about the speed with which the government is proceeding with this and what we fear will be inadequate safeguards for religious bodies and ministers and people of faith who view this as being contrary to their beliefs.”
But Tom French, policy co-ordinator for the Equality Network, said Scotland has taken a “huge step forward” towards full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
“This is a simple matter of equality and religious freedom. LGBT people deserve equal rights under the law, including the right to get married to the person they love.”