Scotland threw down the equality gauntlet today and announced plans to become the first jurisdiction in Britain to allow same sex marriages. It means that if the bill passes through the Scottish parliament unhindered gay couples would be able to legally wed as early as 2014.
The declaration provoked an angry reaction from Catholic, evangelical and Presbyterian groups but was warmly welcomed by equality campaigners and the small number of religious congregations who wish to preside over gay weddings.
Same sex couples from south of the border would be able to marry prompting speculation that Gretna Green’s historical reputation as a runaway wedding destination could undergo something of a 21 Century renaissance. It would be up to Westminster to decide whether such couples would be considered married or in civil partnerships once they return to England or Wales.
The decision to press ahead with same sex marriage legislation came after nearly 80,000 people responded to a government consultation on the issue – a record number of replies for Scotland.
“We are committed to a Scotland that is fair and equal and that is why we intend to proceeds with plans to allow same-sex marriage and religious ceremonies for civil partnerships,” said Scotland’s Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon as she announced the plans. “We believe this is the right thing to do.”
Scottish ministers stressed that any legislation would include significant new protections and “conscience clauses” for churches and individuals who object to gay marriage on theological grounds. Those wanting to conduct gay religious ceremonies would have to opt in and no congregation will be forced to do anything against its will.
The Government said it would also work with UK ministers to amend equality laws to protect civil celebrants from legal disciplinary action if they refused to carry our same sex marriages.
"The Scottish government has already made clear that no religious body will be compelled to conduct same-sex marriages and we reiterate that today,” Ms Sturgeon insisted. “Such protection is provided for under existing equality laws.”
Nonetheless the announcement provoked a scathing response from those Christian and Muslim communities who lobbied against the proposals.
“The Scottish government is embarking on a dangerous social experiment on a massive scale,” said a spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland. “We strongly suspect that time will show the Church to have been completely correct in explaining that same-sex sexual relationships are detrimental to any love expressed within profound friendships."
The Church of Scotland was more measured in its response but accused legislators of needlessly rushing ahead with legislation that many of its members found difficult.
"We are acutely aware that opinions differ among our own members and that many people are anxious and hurt in the current situation,” said Rev Alan Hamilton. "We believe homophobia to be sinful and we reaffirm our strong pastoral commitment to all people in Scotland, regardless of sexual orientation or beliefs."
He added: "We are concerned the government will legislate without being able to effectively protect religious bodies or their ministers whose beliefs prevent them from celebrating civil-partnerships or same-sex marriages."
Tim Hopkins, from the pro-gay marriage Equality Network, welcomed the decision. “It’s great news,” he said. “You might find Scotland suddenly gets lots of couples from England and American coming here to marry. Around a quarter of marriages in Scotland are already carried out by people with no geographical link to the area.”