The Scottish Government last night rebuffed calls to hold a referendum on proposals to legalise same-sex marriage.
Ministers ruled out a public vote – urged by the leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, earlier this week – labelling the issue one of “conscience not constitution” in the wake of a cabinet meeting yesterday afternoon.
However, a decision on whether implementation of equal marriage legislation will be given the go-ahead is not due until the end of the month, a government spokesman confirmed, contrary to widespread reports a verdict could have been on the cards yesterday.
Instead, a cabinet sub-committee – led by Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and including Cabinet Secretary for Education, Mike Russell, and his counterpart for Justice, Kenny MacAskill – has been convened to consider “some particular issues of detail” ahead of the announcement.
Proposals to legalise gay marriage attracted the largest response – almost 80,000 – to any government consultation following its launch last year, prompting the Catholic Church to propose a referendum take place because of “intense public interest” in the issue.
But a government spokesperson last night said: “This is an important issue and it is right that Cabinet takes the time to get both the principle and the detail of the decision right.
“During the discussion, recent calls for a referendum on the subject were carefully considered. However, Cabinet views this as an issue of conscience not constitution. Given that if a Bill is brought forward it should in the view of the Scottish Government be determined by a free vote, Cabinet has concluded that a referendum would not be appropriate.
“Cabinet has now asked a Cabinet sub-committee, led by the Deputy First Minister, to further examine some particular issues of detail before a final decision is reached. We remain committed to publishing the consultation responses and our clear decision on the way forward before the end of this month.”
Equality campaigners welcomed confirmation a referendum was not being considered, albeit warned a “clear and positive decision” must be delivered sooner rather than later if government credibility is to remain intact.
Policy Coordinator for the Equality Network, Tom French, 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.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said the SNP were risking their “credibility on equality” following failure to deliver a firm decision yesterday. “I would urge the First Minister to stand firm against powerful opponents, heal any divides in his own cabinet and take a lead on equality in marriage,” he added.
Drew Smith, Scottish Labour’s social justice spokesman, added: “This display of weak leadership on such an important issue will have people questioning who is calling the shots in the SNP Cabinet. A decision on this issue is long overdue and any further delay from Alex Salmond is unacceptable.”
A spokesman for Scotland for Marriage, which opposes proposals to legislate for same-sex marriage, said: “We welcome the fact that the Scottish Government is taking more time to reflect upon the gravity of the decision which they are preparing to take.
“We hope the Scottish Government 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.
“No amount of delays can get away from the fact that the Scottish Government must confront those big issues.”