Legislation to legalise same-sex marriage is to be published by the Scottish Government before the end of the year.
Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon today confirmed the Scottish Government’s intention to legislate for same-sex marriage with the first same-sex couples potentially able to marry by early 2015.
However, Sturgeon added that the draft legislation will be accompanied by important protections for freedom of speech and religion.
“We believe that in a country that aspires to be an equal and tolerant society, as we do in Scotland, this is the right thing to do,” she said.
“However, we recognise and respect the concerns that some have expressed, in particular the concerns that have been expressed by the churches, and we are determined that the legislation will be accompanied by protections for freedom of speech and religion.”
Sturgeon said these concerns must be properly addressed and as such a focused consultation with stakeholders will take place to inform the drafting of legislation. However, she stressed that no religious body will be compelled to conduct same-sex marriages.
Where a body does decide to conduct same-sex marriages, individual celebrants who consider such ceremonies to be contrary to their faith will also be protected. In this regard, Sturgeon said the Scottish Government is working with the UK Government to secure an amendment to the UK Equality Act before the formal introduction of a Bill to the Scottish Parliament.
The announcement came as the Scottish Government published analysis of the 77, 508 consultation responses received up until December last year. Of the standard responses received, 65 per cent of Scottish respondents were in favour of same-sex marriage with 35 per cent against. However, the inclusion of postcards and petitions in this total found only 36 per cent were in favour compared to 64 per cent against.
Sturgeon said the Government had taken “great care” in reaching its decision and had weighed up the consultation responses along with further indicators of public opinion.
“I think it is important to stress that we recognise and respect the fact that there are very deeply held views on both sides of this debate and it is simply not possible for this government or indeed any government to completely reconcile those points of view. But what we can do is seek to proceed in a way that seeks to understand and address the concerns that some people have and have expressed on this issue.”
She said the government had also taken into account support expressed by leaders of the other party leaders in Scotland. While Sturgeon warned against pre-judging a legislative process, she observed that, at present, there appears to be a parliamentary majority in favour of same-sex marriage.
“I think if the Government wasn’t committing today to bringing forward legislation there would undoubtedly be a Member’s Bill brought forward on this issue,” the Deputy First Minister said.
Equality campaigners have celebrated the decision and called it a “a proud day for Scotland”.
Tom French, Policy Coordinator for the Equality Network, said that in making this announcement the Scottish Government has shown its “determination to make Scotland a more progressive country”.
He added: “Same-sex marriage is about equality and freedom. The freedom for couples, and religious and humanist groups that want to, to celebrate same-sex marriages. But equally, upholding the freedom of other religious groups to say no to same-sex marriages. That’s the right way for Scotland to deal with the different opinions on this.”
French said the network has no problem with the Scottish Government seeking the amendment to the Equality Act and “fully expect” the UK Government to cooperate.
Grant Costello MSYP, Chair of the Scottish Youth Parliament, which led an award-winning campaign in support of equal marriage, further backed today’s announcement, calling it “the civil rights battle of our generation”.
“Today the Scottish Government made it clear it stands with our generation on the side of equality. Scotland’s young people are overwhelmingly in favour of Equal Marriage. They want a Scotland where two people who love each other should be able to marry. We thank the Scottish Government for listening to Scotland’s young people and commit to working with them to make Equal Marriage a reality.”
MSPs from across the parties also welcomed the decision.
“This is an important step and I am pleased that the Scottish Government has accepted the principle of same sex marriage,” Johann Lamont MSP, leader of the Scottish Labour Party, said.
“While this has not been an easy debate, we must now build on the emerging consensus to deliver real marriage equality for Scotland.”
Scottish Greens co-convener Patrick Harvie MSP said the decision “sends the right message about Scotland as a society,” and added that the “writing is on the wall for those backward individuals who argue that same sex relationships should be treated as second class”.
He said: “Marriage has huge symbolic significance to many people, and should be available to all couples who want to celebrate their love regardless of sexual orientation.”
However the Greens also urged the Government not to allow further delay while it lobbies for changes to UK equality law. “It’s clear that religious freedom can be protected and extended within existing equality law, and I would urge the Scottish Government not to delay progress until the changes they want are made by the UK Government. This issue has been on hold for too long already.”