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Same-sex marriage legislation clears first parliamentary hurdle

Thousands of people in Scotland deserve 'same unthinking right to marry' says Conservative leader.

Same-sex marriage: Opposition leaders united in favour.
© STV

A controversial law allowing same-sex couples to marry has passed its first key test at the Scottish Parliament.

MSPs backed the change in principle with a 98-15 vote, and five abstentions, after a debate which underlined fundamental divisions between supporters and opponents.

The Scottish Government hailed the endorsement as an important step forward.

But some politicians, including SNP members, were among those voicing concerns that the move fails to recognise the rights of faith groups who oppose the state's interference in changing the definition of marriage.

Some raised fears they will be targeted for their opposition — with one Labour MSP saying it had been suggested she be burned at the stake as a witch.

Health Secretary Alex Neil insisted that the legislation put forward "makes some sensible improvements to marriage and civil partnership law".

He told the Scottish Parliament that the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill "introduces same-sex marriage, which will further promote equality and diversity in our society".

But he insisted that it did this "while respecting the views of those who do not want to take part".

Mr Neil said: "I believe the provisions of this Bill will improve our society that we live in here in Scotland, and make it a much more civilised society in how we treat LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] people."

While equality campaigners back plans to introduce gay marriage, the move has been fiercely opposed by a number of religious groups in Scotland, including the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church.

But the Scottish Government insists the Bill will protect the rights of religious celebrants and groups who are opposed to allowing gay couples to wed.

Under the plans, religious bodies would have to opt in to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies. If a religious group does decide do this, protection will also be offered to individual celebrants who feel it would go against their personal faith to carry out gay weddings.

"Respect for religious beliefs and views has been at the heart of our work on same-sex marriage," Mr Neil said.

Diversity

He stressed Holyrood ministers had "acknowledged the diversity and strength of religious beliefs", adding: "We recognise, although we disagree, that some people of faith sincerely believe marriage should be between, and only between, one man and one woman."

In this regard, he said the Bill "makes it clear that there is no duty to opt in" and conduct same-sex weddings.

Mr Neil also stressed there was "no duty" on any religious celebrant to solemnise same-sex marriages. To help protect individual celebrants, he said the Scottish Government planned to change the UK Equality Act of 2010.

Holyrood ministers have reached an agreement with the UK Government to amend this law to protect individual religious celebrants who do not wish to contact same-sex marriages from the threat of court action claiming discrimination.

"Same-sex marriage will not be introduced in Scotland until this amendment to the Equality Act has been secured, which I believe it will be," Mr Neil said.

Politicians were given the opportunity to vote freely, not having to toe any party line.

Among those voting No were Scottish Government ministers Roseanna Cunningham and Fergus Ewing, joined by four SNP backbenchers, eight Conservatives and one Labour MSP.

Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, in a highly personal speech in favour of the Bill, spoke of her experience growing up as a gay woman denied the opportunity to marry.

"I don't want the next generation of young gay people growing up, as I did, believing that marriage is something they can never have," she said.

"We have the opportunity with this Bill to change that, and to change the attitudes and even the stigma that being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender can still evoke and which can can cause so much harm."

Guilt

Young gay people are made to face guilt and shame, she told MSPs.

"At the moment we tell them you're good enough to serve in our armed forces; you're good enough to care in our hospitals; you're good enough to teach in our schools, but you're not good enough to marry the person you love and who loves you in return," she said.

"We tell them you're something different, something less, something other and that marriage, that dream, that gold standard, that does not apply to you - you don't get to have that."

Labour MSP Elaine Smith spoke strongly against the Bill, and was the only one from her party to vote No.

"Since indicating that I did not intend to support the redefinition of marriage, my religion has been disparaged, I have been branded homophobic and bigoted, I have been likened to the Ku Klux Klan, and it was suggested that I be burnt at the stake as a witch," she said.

Questioning the strength of safeguards in the legislation, she said: "MSPs have a responsibility to ensure that to the best of their ability they are not introducing legislation with consequences, albeit perhaps unintended, that will negatively impact on society.

"I hope that MSPs have not been bounced into voting yes for fear of being branded homophobic, because they signed a pledge, or because they have not reflected on all of the arguments presented to the Government or the committee."

But her party colleague Jackie Ballie commended the Scottish Government for taking forward the Bill.

"For many of us, this is about how we see ourselves as a nation and how others see us - about the values that we hold and whether Scotland is indeed a confident, progressive nation where equality is truly valued," she said.

Three Labour MSPs abstained - Hanzala Malik, Michael McMahon and Siobhan McMahon.SNP member John Mason voted against the Bill, warning that Parliament is "not reflecting public opinion".

He said: "I do not seek to impose Christian values on what is an increasingly secular society, neither do I seek to restrict rights of anyone in society.

"I do seek equality for each person in society, but I remain unconvinced by the assurances given, and therefore I will vote against the Bill."

His SNP colleague Marco Biagi drew on personal experience, saying he could only conclude he was "different" and "less deserving" when he was growing up.

"When I came out, it was the time I stopped looking at those around me and wishing I was the same as them, and instead started to wish I had the same rights as them," he said.

Neutral

Green leader Patrick Harvie said he is in "impeccably neutral territory" on the issue.

"I'm single, I'm bisexual, I've no idea whether I'll have a long term relationship with a man or a woman in the future and I've no idea whether I would want to get married," he said.

Mr Harvie dismissed some of the arguments against the legislation as spurious, silly, mischievous or curious, but warned against ignoring other "serious" arguments.

"They should be confronted and defeated because they assert, whether they do so in religious terms or any other, they assert basically the lesser worth, the lesser dignity, the lesser status or the lesser value of LGBT people and our relationships," he said.

"These arguments are serious and should be defeated, they deserve to be defeated."

Lib Dem Jim Hume said: "Today's vote was a big step forward for equality and a move towards the fairer Scotland that we all want to see."

In a statement issued after the vote, Rev David Robertson, minister of St Peter’s Free Church in Dundee and director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity, said the largest indicator of public opinion on the issue thus far – the Scottish Government’s own consultation on gay marriage – showed that 64-per-cent of the 77,500 Scots who responded are opposed.

“This is a very sad day for Scotland and for Scottish democracy," he said.

“The Scottish Parliament, without due consultation of the Scottish people and with the electorate not actually having the opportunity to vote, have made this fundamental change in Scottish society."

Tom French, policy co-ordinator for the Equality Network — the Scottish lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality charity that runs the Equal Marriage campaign, said: “Tonight the Scottish Parliament voted by an overwhelming majority to back same-sex marriage and uphold the principle that we should all be equal under the law.

"This vote is a huge step forward which will send out a strong message that LGBT people are equal and valued members of our society. While there is still more work to do to improve the bill and ensure it becomes law, LGBT people across the country will be celebrating this significant milestone in the journey towards full equality.”

Supporters of traditional marriage pledged to step up their campaign and called for a series of important amendments to be inserted in the Bill, aimed at ensuring those who believe that marriage is between one man and one woman are not discriminated against, have their freedom of speech restricted, are not denied access to public services and are not prevented from fostering or adopting children.

A Scotland For Marriage spokesman said: "This only marks the end of the beginning and Scotland For Marriage will now step up its campaign.

"The main focus will be to ensure that real safeguards set out in amendments to the legislation to protect the rights and civil liberties of the majority of Scots who don't support this law.

"The politicians claim there are sufficient safeguards but legal advice from leading human rights lawyers says otherwise."

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