THE Scottish Government was criticised by equality campaigners last night after it delayed a decision on the introduction of gay marriage. In a statement issued after Cabinet ministers met to discuss the issue, the government said it would take more time to ensure that churches had the freedom to opt out of same-sex
A Cabinet sub-committee has been set up to ensure religious organisations that object to gay weddings on moral grounds will be able to overcome legal challenges from those who believe they should
welcome homosexual relationships.
The government also rejected a call for a referendum on gay marriage.
Scottish Government briefings had led to widespread expectation that yesterday would be when history was made, with ministers formally announcing plans to make Scotland the first part of the UK to legalise same-sex marriage.
The failure of the SNP Cabinet to meet those expectations led to fury from those who have been campaigning for gay marriage.
Equality campaigners were angered by the delay, which arose despite ministers having seven months in which to consider the Scottish Government’s consultation on the issue.
That consultation was launched at the beginning of last September and was closed to responses three months later in December.
Last night, Tom French, policy co-ordinator for the Equality Network, said: “It is time the Scottish Government demonstrated its leadership on this issue and announced a decision.
“Same-sex marriage is supported by the majority of Scots and the majority of MSPs. The government have had seven months to analyse the consultation responses and to deal with the detail. We cannot understand why there is any need for further delay.
“The government created huge expectation, not least amongst the national and international press, and have failed to deliver today.”
Mr French added: “It is unfair to keep dangling the prospect of equality in front of LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] people, only to snatch it further away again.
“The government should now set a date for announcing their decision, and stick to it.”
Same-sex marriage has proved one of the most difficult issues for the government.
Major SNP donor Sir Brian Souter holds a traditional view of marriage, which he believes should be between a man and a woman. It could also cause difficulties for prominent SNP figures, including the ministers Roseanna Cunningham and Michael Matheson, who are Catholics.
The government consultation generated a record 78,000 responses, three times more than its independence consultation.
Earlier this week, the Catholic Church called for a nationwide referendum on the issue, a plea that was rejected by the Cabinet when it met at Bute House
A Scottish Government spokesman said it viewed the matter as “an issue of conscience, not constitution”.
The government also revealed that ministers would be given a free vote on gay marriage, assuming a bill is brought forward to parliament.
Before that is done, Mr
Salmond will hear back from a Cabinet sub-committee comprising Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, justice secretary Kenny MacAskill, education
secretary Michael Russell and the Lord Advocate, Frank
A government spokesman said the sub-committee would examine issues surrounding the protection of freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
Recently, a legal opinion commissioned by the Scotland for Marriage pressure group, which opposes same-sex marriage, warned that ministers and priests could be sued for refusing to allow gay ceremonies in their churches.
The opinion by Aidan O’Neill, QC, also suggested that schoolchildren would be forced to
attend gay history lessons. Mr Russell’s presence in the sub-committee would suggest that schooling is another issue that must be explored before the government announces its position by the end of this month.
After Cabinet met, a government spokesman said: “We can’t go into the detail about the protections, but there are considerations in [Mr Russell’s] portfolio for his portfolio interests, the same reason Kenny MacAskill is on it from a judicial perspective.”
Advisers said ministers would be given a free vote and confirmed no minister had threatened to resign.
The Cabinet sub-committee will report back to the First Minister. It does not necessarily have to present its findings to the full Cabinet.
The last Cabinet meeting of the month will take place in Skye next Tuesday, but gay marriage is not currently on the agenda. A spokeswoman said this might be subject to change.
Last night, Scottish Youth Parliament chair Grant Costello said: “It’s very disappointing the Scottish Government has once again delayed the decision to publish the consultation results and reveal their own plans for equal marriage. It’s time to halt the hold-ups, end the delays and put a stop to the speculation.”
Labour’s social justice spokesman, Drew Smith, said: “This display of weak leadership on such an important issue will have people questioning who
is calling the shots in the SNP Cabinet.”
The Liberal Democrats said the SNP was risking its “equality credibility”.
But the delay was praised by Scotland for Marriage. A spokesman said: “We welcome the fact the Scottish Government is taking more time to reflect upon the gravity of the decision which they are preparing to take.
“We hope they will continue to be informed by legal advice which confirms that redefining marriage will unravel hundreds of years of matrimonial law, creating legal and cultural chaos across Scotland.”
Gordon Wilson, the former leader of the SNP and chairman of the Centre for Public Christianity, Solas, urged the Cabinet to “ditch this absurd proposal”.
The Scottish Government spokesman maintained that its consultation would be published and a “clear decision” would be made by the end of this month.