Eddie Barnes: Forget independence, same-sex marriage is the hottest potato for Scottish politicians

Catholic Church have been vocal opponents of gay marriage legislation
Catholic Church have been vocal opponents of gay marriage legislation
Have your say

THE independence referendum may have dominated the headlines, but it is the Scottish Government’s plan to consider same-sex marriage which has given Ministers a bigger post bag: 21,000 responses to more than 70,000.

And while Messrs Salmond and Sturgeon have suggested the public is moving in favour of gay marriage, there is no doubting this issue is as hot as potatoes come for Mr Salmond and his team this summer.

Their decision on the matter is now well overdue. The consultation exercise, asking people for their views on the matter, closed last December.

A decision was thought likely in the spring, but with ministers citing the sheer volume of responses, that soon passed. The local elections came and went.

In May, asked by LibDem leader Willie Rennie whether he would guarantee the introduction of same sex marriage, Mr Salmond said “the responses (to the consultation exercise) will be published next month”. June has come and gone.

The parliament has now gone into recess. Last week, the pro-reform Equality Network said a decision would finally come next week, on 10 July. Yesterday, however, the group was suggested it may be a week later.

No wonder there is a hold up. This is one of those classic ministerial decisions when the choice is whether to slit your wrists or cut your throat, with no room for a happy compromise.

For supporters, it is all about equality. Campaigners want gay and straight couples recognised as the same under the law.

Thus, even a compromise which would create a new definition of “civil marriage” – with a bar on religious gay marriage still in place – would be inadequate for them.

But, say Catholic, Muslim and Evangelical opponents, changing the meaning of marriage – in the words of Archbishop Mario Conti of Glasgow – “redefines nature.” And the law has no right to “recreate society” in this way.

Pressing ahead with the plans would leave Mr Salmond’s careful wooing of the Catholic Church over the last two decades in tatters, and motivate thousands of opponents in the run-up to the referendum. Backing away would expose splits in the SNP, and a trigger a bitter backlash from MSPs and the equality lobby.

So might the long grass be being readied? Opponents have been circulating to MSPs, a QCs opinion on the implications of the reform.

Ministers have claimed that they will give protection to churches which do not want to perform gay marriages. But the QC’s opinion is that, thanks to EU and UK Equality legislation, this reassurances would “not exempt” them from “a claim of direct sex discrimination”.

“We’d like to do it, but right now it’s tricky legally and we don’t have the powers to change it”. It’s a possible way out.