The Church of Scotland could stop performing weddings altogether to avoid the threat of legal action if its ministers refuse to conduct gay marriage ceremonies, a Kirk leader warned yesterday.
The Reverend Alan Hamilton, convener of the Kirk’s legal questions committee, told MSPs there were “deep concerns” about the legislation allowing gay marriage.
He warned that the Scottish Government’s proposals to allow single-sex weddings are an “invitation” to unaffordable court battles in future,
despite legal safeguards. He said his committee was considering “whether it’s worth the Church of Scotland continuing to offer marriages in Scotland”.
The controversial changes have cross-party support at Holyrood, despite widespread opposition among religious groups.
In an effort to ease concerns about potential legal disputes, the legislation will include an “opt-in” system, meaning religious groups only need participate if they want to.
The Church of Scotland
opposes gay marriage, and the Rev Hamilton told MSPs on
Holyrood’s equal opportunities committee yesterday that the legislation would “fundamentally change” the nature of the institution in Scottish culture.
“We’re also concerned that this is an invitation to take religious bodies in particular through the court system,” he said. “We’re voluntary bodies, we rely on giving donations through our members.
“The thought of years of exhausting legal challenge which is also incredibly expensive is
really very concerning.”
Rev Hamilton said his committee and others have been asked to look into the issue by the Kirk’s General Assembly.
They are to consider “whether it’s worth the Church of Scotland continuing to offer marriages in Scotland”.
Such a change could see the Kirk follow the practice which is common on the Continent of all marriages being civil but couples having the option of a church blessing afterwards.
The Church of Scotland said in a statement after yesterday’s committee that there are no plans to stop conducting marriages at the moment, but the findings of the committee will come before its General Assembly in 2015.
The key legal concern is that churches are effectively seen as “agents of the state” in performing marriages.
The threat of court action could be minimised if the state simply “recognised” church marriages, Rev Hamilton said, as this would mean that religious bodies are still essentially seen as separate, standalone bodies.
“Nevertheless, even with this innovation, we have deep concerns that, when challenged, this will all unravel and there’s
plenty of high-level legal opinion to that effect.”
The Catholic Church in Scotland said it was also fearful of the threat of legal action.
“The Rev Alan Hamilton is absolutely right to raise serious concerns over the prospects of churches being challenged in court as a result of the passing of the Bill,” a Church spokesman said.
“This Bill constitutes the most serious threat to religious liberty in Scotland in living memory. Churches and religious bodies will be vulnerable to challenge and legal attack. Forcing society to accept same-sex marriage in the face of majority opposition is unnecessary, unwanted and undemocratic.”
A number of religious groups voiced concerns to MSPs yesterday over the impact of the changes.
Rev David Robertson, Free Church minister in Dundee and director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity, said the Scottish Government is effectively “destroying marriage,” by turning it into civil partnership.
“We do not accept that any government has the right to redefine marriage any more than it has the right to redefine a circle as a square,” he added.
“We also believe that the Scottish Government is rushing into this without a proper understanding of the consequences of this fundamental change in society.”
The Scottish Government last night insisted that there are “very clear and robust protections” for both churches and individual celebrants, which would cover the concerns of the Church of Scotland.
A spokesman said: “Religious bodies will have to opt in for their celebrants to be able to solemnise same-sex marriages. Should a body choose to opt in, there is no obligation on any
individual celebrant of that body to take part.”